Notes on 'SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE" by Sydney Bayley
Incase you missed the Wivenhoe screening of "Spirit of the Beehive", we are pleased to offer you the notes from Writer and Speaker Sydney Bayley. Her introduction and talk were very well received, and we would like to thank her for adding an extra dimension to both the film and the festival as a whole:
The Spirit of the Beehive
Director, story and screenplay: Victor Erice
Screenplay: Angel Fernandez Santos
Cinematography: Luis Cuadrado
Music: Luis de Pablo
Sound Effects: Luis Castro
Cast: Fernando Fernan Gomez, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent. Isabel Telleria
We are showing a film that the Guardian and Empire magazine both placed in their top twenty-five arthouse films of all time. However, it is quite difficult to see on the big screen, perhaps because it is only one of three films that the director, Victor Erice, made so his ouevre does not lend itself to seasons of his works. His three films came out in 1976, 1983 and 1992 and all were critically well received but he has not made a film since although he is alive, aged seventy-five, and, as recently as August of this year, was introducing The Spirit of the Beehive and answering questions about it in Berkeley, California.
Erice was not only the director, but he came up with the idea of the story and wrote the screenplay with Angel Fernandez Santos, who shared similar childhood memories of Franco’s Spain. The film is set in 1940, which is the year of Erice’s birth and the year after the end of the Spanish Civil War. It was made the year after Franco’s death so there is a kind of bookending of Franco’s dictatorship.
Perhaps a clue to how he sees the film is that he thinks there is a drive in childhood to make sense of the world, the outer and the inner worlds, and to match the two. He was very influenced by American films, which he saw in his childhood and, when he was thirteen, he saw The Bicycle Thieves, which he sees as a very important film. This also contains a highly realistic performance by a child.
The starting point in this film is a showing of the 1931 film, Frankenstein, and the way it is brought to the village for a public showing reflects Erice’s experience. He regrets that this is now lost and that the position of cinema as the art of the people in the twentieth century, is now lost. He thinks that children who first watch a film on TV or a computer have a very different experience, which is essentially private.
The film is about a family, a man, a woman and their two little girls but, at the centre of the film, is Ana, the youngest child, her fantasy life and her attempts to make sense of the adult realities around her. Originally, there were more obvious references to the Spanish Civil War and there was a narration by an adult Ana, commenting on the mysteries of childhood, and visual evidence of recent war, but Erice decided to focus more on domestic distress, which makes it much more subtle. There are visual references to the war and its physical effects and there is a fugitive, who may or may not be a member of the Resistance to Franco’s regime, but nothing is spelt out.
There are some interesting aspects of the making of the film that contribute to its realistic feel, especially in the performances of the children. The names of the characters were made the same as the actors’ names because Ana Torrent, who was only six during the filming, found it difficult to remember the fictional names. She thought the monster in the film playing the part of Frankenstein was real. The sound-scape was very important to Erice: in most Spanish films of the time, post-dubbing was usual and children were voiced by women actors but, in this film, Erice used the children’s actual voices. The sound-scape is constructed to emphasize the horror genre, with footsteps and uncanny musical melodies, reflecting the part Frankenstein’s monster plays in the film. Erice said, at the Berkeley showing, that he requested that all communication on set be in a whisper, ‘like in a church’; the adults were surprised but they did it. The children saw the adults whispering and thought there was a presence flying over the set that could become real. The adults became afraid of this phantom too.
Viewers and critics have tended to emphasise the historical circumstances surrounding the story and Erice says that he understands why they are compelled to do so but when he started the film, he had no idea where it was going; there was no pre-meditation. He describes the film as a consequence of a system of repression but that it is more about an internalized world.
More than being a film about the effects of oppression, The Spirit of the Beehive explores the fears and anxieties of childhood. Roger Ebert describes the film as ‘a poetic work about the imagination of children’.
What are the images from the film that stay in your mind?
What do you notice about the way the director places the family members in relation to each other?
What is the film saying about cinema?
Does this film remind you of any other films about children?
How significant is recent Spanish history in this film?
Sydney Bayley October 2015