Movies often stand out for either possessing visuals and a concrete plot line or thoughtful symbolism and imagery. Not to say a film can’t have both, but it is this distinction that allows movies to be intentional about the overall takeaway. The Spanish production “The Spirit of the Beehive” is a good example of the latter: a film whose social and political allegories drive its plot. Unfortunately, the film is so heavy in symbolism, the theme is hard to grasp upon an initial viewing.
Released in Spain in 1973 and screened at The Loft on May 12, 2017, “The Spirit of the Beehive” is set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, when the Francoist regime took control of the country. The film does not cover any of the political intrigues that took place in the period, instead choosing to focus on a particular family in the Spanish countryside, but what was an exciting and fulfilling premise becomes squandered in a very slow-paced and confusing film.
Fernando, head of the household and beekeeper by hobby, has three daughters: Teresa, Ana, and Isabel, by order of age. Together, they make up the emotionally-distressed family at the center of the film. The family appears to be well-off, residing in a large residence with servants at their beckoning. Teresa keeps a former lover in her thoughts, evident through her long-distance letters to him. As for Ana, she continually plays on Isabel’s gullibility by talking about spirits and other matters that would confuse children who lack social intelligence.
The film is unconventional in terms of plot structure, cinematography, and the portrayal of themes. Not everything is revealed or set in concrete at its start, as everything critical to the plot is slowly unraveled throughout the length of the film. The cinematography focuses on long and wide shots, with a few close-ups that focus on particular items in the house or landscape. Since the film emphasizes the use of symbolism, the close-ups serve that purpose well.
As for the themes, it is unclear what the director’s message is if the film’s context is unknown to the audience. The family is supposed to represent the Spanish nation after the civil war, as the nation experienced violent societal splits much like the disintegration of a family. However, the family shown does not seem to be dysfunctional, and none of the household members show outward signs of loss.
As for the Spanish village, it is situated in an empty plain, which may allude to the isolation the nation faced as a consequence of the Francoist regime. But again, there does not seem to be any outward sign of the village’s dysfunctionality. Life appears to run smoothly for the village– the school runs well and the villagers enjoy film screenings. In addition, the village appears to be undamaged from the war, with the exception of an abandoned house. But even that house suffers no damage from either gunshots or explosions.
Fernando seems to be quite introspective via his journal entries about his daily beekeeping activities, which can be described as frustration at the monotony of the work. His observations on the organization and devotion of the bees may reflect Francoist society as a whole: organized, efficient, but devoid of free will.
The Spanish village ironically holds a screening for “Doctor Frankenstein,” which serves as a parallel to how the Francoist regime treated the Republicans during and after the war. To give some historical context, the Republicans occupied the leftist end of the political spectrum, while the Nationalists under Francisco Franco were right-wing militarists. When a leftist government rose to power in Spain in 1936, a group of generals initiated a coup and it degenerated into the Spanish Civil War. The war ended in 1939, with the leftist government toppled from power and the Francoists assuming their place.
The Francoists categorized the Republicans as dangers to public order, godless since they were supported by other left-wing governments like the Soviet Union, among other negative connotations. Indeed, a Republican that is featured near the end of the film resembles the Frankenstein in how they are both treated by their respective societies. Both the Frankenstein and the Republican in the film meet violent fates, killed without mercy.
Even though there is no indication of a troubled relationship between them, Isabel sees an opportunity to influence the mind of her innocent sister. Her treatment of Ana can reflect the treatment given by the Francoist regime towards the common people of Spain, as the regime may have meant well, but sought control over thought. This is a trait that exists within fascist/authoritarian regimes, where there is a strong emphasis on order and unity.
“The Spirit of the Beehive” possesses deep meaning through symbolism and beautiful shots of the Spanish countryside, making it a production that artists would love. The same cannot be said for the general populace, who may not comprehend the symbolism of the film and may lose focus due to the film’s slow pace. In my opinion, there are only a few other productions rich in symbolism that have succeeded in appealing to the general population — films such as “Birdman” by Alejandro G. Innaritu, “The Artist” by Michel Hazanavicius, or “Boogie Nights” by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Moreover, a film that is rich in symbolism and beautifully shot does not guarantee a memorable experience. While it is important for a visual production to have these characteristics, of equal importance is the ability for a film to maintain the interest of the audience. For “The Spirit of the Beehive,” I personally had to fight the urge to sleep because of the film’s slow pace. The symbolism was frustratingly difficult to grasp and I lost comprehension at certain points in the film. Also, some scenes took up too much time, as if the director was trying so hard to drive home the scene’s symbolism to the audience. For those who are patient and interested in artsy productions, there is potential for enjoyment. For those who want a memorable film experience and do not desire lethargy, I would not recommend it. In either case, try not to fall asleep!