Friday, February 09, 2007

The Spirit of the Beehive

Seeing Pan's Labyrinth last week reminded me of this marvelous Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive that I saw sometime back. It is not only set in the same time and political background as Pan's Labyrinth but also shares many thematic elements specially in the way it deals with childhood and imagination. It is directed by Victor Erice and was released in 1973. I wanted to post something about it at that time, even wrote a few lines but then found it a little too difficult and then got distracted. In a way it is a very difficult film to write or talk about because most of its power comes from its elusive visual design and and the ideas and feelings that it provokes aren't very easy to articulate, or even to understand. This is a film about childhood but meant for adults. It evokes feelings of desolation, despair and loss but not as we generally understand from the dictionary meaning of these words but it is something as experienced by children, when they are still living in the "age of magic," and helplessly try to understand and make sense of the world around them using whatever mental and imaginative resources they have at their disposal at that stage.

The story is set in the early 40's Spain. The disastrous civil war has almost ended but Franco's forces are still searching and killing the rebel fugitives. It is set in the plains of the Castile region of Spain, most famous for being the home of Spain's greatest literary hero Don Quixote (La Mancha is in the same province.) It is a strikingly beautiful setting but not in a conventional way. There is something desolate and particularly haunting about the landscape. Needless to say, Victor Erice's camera exploits the landscape to a hilt and the film has that "Antonioni-Look" specially in the outdoor scenes.

At the center of the story are two girls. Ana, who is six years old and her elder sister Isabel who is a few years older. The film begins with the arrival of a a film by a traveling projection system in the local makeshift theatre of the village (people bring their own chairs and mattresses.) The new film is the classic original Frankenstein directed by James Whale with Boris Karloff in the titular role. The two girls, go to see the new film too and are immediately struck by its images. Specially the younger Ana who can't understand why the monster kills the girl in the movie and why people then kill the monster. She is more baffled and mystified than she is frightened by the story and its images. What she wants is just to understand. (In the documentary accompanying the DVD Erice says that it was her "actual" reaction as she was watching it for the first time and for th real. He shot the scene as a documentary.) Her elder sister is already past that age of magic and can distinguish between fact and fiction. She is also a big-time manipulator of her younger sister's innocence. She tells her that Frankenstein is a spirit and you can call him just by saying her name ("It's me, Ana") and if he thinks you are his friend he will come to you. This makes a startling impression on Ana and everything around her soon becomes magical and mystical. In this state of hyperactive imagination when she is associating her impressions of the world into her own private narrative she comes across a fugitive from the civil war in an isolated barnyard and mistakes him for the monster friend. Soon the violence of the real world intervenes and unable to comprehend and confronted by her father she runs away from home and has some mysterious and mystical experience in the night (I won't say what.) The film ends with the scene with Ana on the balcony of her room, in the dead of the night, remembering what her sister said to her, that you just have to say "It's me, Ana" and the monster will reappear but then she doesn't say it and comes back to her room and in a way showing that the age of magic is over for her looking forward to the adult world. In this way, it is noticeably different from the closed ending of Pan's Labyrinth which doesn't leave any room for future at all. (I don't know which ending is bleaker. Depends on one's worldview!)

Representing children's subjectivity in all its complexities is an extremely difficult task. It is perhaps an impossible one, in a larger technical and philosophical sense, given the very language of representation (whether visual or linguistic) and the philosophical "categories" that it is based on, belongs to the realm of adults. It is even more difficult if one wants to avoid fantastic elements in the storytelling. The Spirit of the Beehive succeeds brilliantly because it uses a fantastic story (that of Frankenstein) as a part of its own realistic story and makes its point by identifying parallels and alluding to it in different ways. In one of the scenes Ana asks her mother whether spirits are good or bad, to which her mother answers that they are good to good girls and bad to bad girls. And in a scene later in the film she has gone for mushroom hunting where her expert father teaches both her and her sister how to differentiate a good mushroom from a poisonous one. She identifies one but then learns that it is deadly and poisonous. It is a very subtle scene and it shows effectively and with all complexities the way she is grappling with the moral questions (or the philosophical categories of the adult world). There are many such scenes in the film, specially the one where her sister feigns death.

The film doesn't spend too much time with the adults and they are mostly seen through the eyes of Ana. They come across as forlorn and self-absorbed figures, like people who haven't yet come to terms with the traumas that they have gone through in the past years. In fact the images and two brief monologues that the parents have for themselves are all drenched in the most unremitting melancholia. In that way, the film also comes across as a work of mourning. It is finally about remembering and acknowledging the loss, even though it is only through the eyes of the child, the things that adults are not willing to do or they think they are not strong enough to do. In one of the key scenes at the end, the mother finally burns the letter that she keeps on writing to a relative or a lover (it is never made clear who the addressee is). Also the father who is an amateur beekeeper and is writing a poetic essay on the titular topic comes to some realization, though again it is never made clear and we only hear fragments of the essay. Something like how bees go about in their meaningless labour, meaningless in the sense that they are not aware of their larger role in the functioning of the beehive, and how the obvious parallels it has with human beings and their larger role in the catastrophes of history (that's my conclusion, the film doesn't say anything about what the title might mean).

Ana Torrent (who plays Ana) is a magical presence and so is every other figure in the film. I think it must be one of the greatest child characters ever (I am not talking of fantasy movies here). Perhaps alongwith the kid in The Bicycle Thief or the two kids in The Night of the Hunter (two of my other favourite films.) I read somewhere that Victor Erice felt guilty after the film about robbing a few years of her childhood from her. In a moving documentary (which comes as an extra on the criterion dvd) we see the grown up Ana traversing the same places she inhabited more than twenty years ago. He obviously doesn't remember much. (Also it is slightly jarring to see her smoking!)

Also, the film has a very distinctive visual and sound design. It was shot with special filters and it shows in its images. Everything is drenched in honeydew kind of colour which again accentuates the mournful atmosphere. Also the flute based musical score avoids easy emotional cues ("feel sad here, now feel happy") and yet comes across as extremely effective in conveying a sense of the inner life of the people inhabiting the story. In short a marvelous film, worth watching again and again (I have seen it three times already!).

More reviews on rotten tomatoes. 100% Fresh, everybody is excited there!!


Cheshire Cat said...

Thanks, Alok. What you say about the lanscape suggests you might like Albert Serra's "Honour of the Knights". It's a rather "meditative" take on Don Quixote... I fell asleep, but you, as a veteran of Bela Tarr, might endure.

jyothsnay said...

beautifully written review Alok.Your tone is so transparent and gossamerish that like others, I could feel how you'd felt immersed with the movie.simple plot but compelling enough to bring onto the table the stark difference between self-generated truth seeking quality in a child's world and a helpless trial of grown-ups coming to terms with the harsh realities of life...I wonder, most of us (when we were children), unknowingly,would have shed down that pristine robe of childhood and got into the big boots of dad or bro or sis with a sense of eagerness.what we'd lost we try to find when we are grown-ups.great a read.TQ boy!

Alok said...

cat: this looks very interesting. Don Quixote filtered through Beckett, someone says!! I have noted it down. and I love films with dreamy and desolate landscapes. Tarr and Antonioni, I am a fan of both! and this belongs in the same school, perhaps more emotional, generous and humane.

jyothsna: thanks! more than the end of the childhood this film also shows how different and how incommunicable the worlds of adults and children are. end of childhood is really something painful... most of us are lucky to have experienced the loss gradually and step by step though.

there is another nice film about loss of innocence called well, Innocence.
the trailer here. it is not easily available on dvd but worth keeping an eye on.

jyothsnay said...

reminds me of ENIGMA's "Return to Innocence"
the surrealistic way to enjoy Enigma is to switch off the lights in the room n lie down n feel the chords mingling with the pale shadows cast by the moonlight...your body becomes like a landscape where many a unknown tale emerge from nowhere..
am still under the influence of Tarkovsky. let me admit,I struggled wth the poetic mves of the camera.But I enjoyed senior Trakovsky's poems.

Alok said...

Oh did you see Stalker? I think it has some poems in it.

jyothsnay said...

No.I watched Nostalghia.But I did ask for "The Stalker".
Anyway, I want to stay aloof for a while with heavy suff..I may lose my sanity (if I have a hint)
but watched Truffaut's Stolen Kisses, quite a light-hearted relief.would blog ths along with my season pick-Funny Games

Alok said...

yes, you should take it slow. i remember now, nostalghia has some poems by elder tarkovsky.

havent seen that Truffaut film. should be good. write about it on the blog. need not be a comprehensive review, just some assorted thoughts. it helps one to understand the film better.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on your blog from Jai's blog (Jabbewock) and really appreciate your writings on movies. Out of curosity and desire to watch these movies could you tell where to get them (preferably in Mumbai, but any Indian city will do).

Alok said...

In Bangalore there are rental libraries like habitat and cinema paradiso, who have good foreign film collections. Don't know about other cities much. But any good dvd collection should have foreign films too.