Tuesday, March 21, 2006

As Bees in Honey Drown

Spirit of the Beehive / El Espíritu de la colmena
(Víctor Erice, Spain, 1973, 35mm, 95 mins.)


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Before Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside), there was Víctor Erice (Dream of Light). While Spirit of the Beehive isn't a horror film, or even a psychological thriller, it uses horror -- specifically 1931's Frankenstein -- as a jumping off point into the mysteries of childhood. I would be more than a little surprised if this dreamy, yet menacing movie did not have a profound effect on the Oscar-winning filmmaker.

Set in rural Spain in 1940, the film begins with a village screening of James Whale's masterpiece. Afterwards, six-year-old Ana (soulful Ana Torrent, who will later appear in Amenábar's 1996 Tesis) asks sister Isabel (impish Isabel Tellería) why the monster killed the girl. Isabel tells her it's just a movie, then contradicts herself by claiming she's actually seen the monster or "spirit." Ana is more convinced by the second story than the first, and her world starts to echo that belief to the extent that she loses herself in it. It's only one echo among many; the film is full of them.
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Their father, Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), for instance, is a beekeeper and his study features a honeycomb-patterned window. Is Erice suggesting, like A.S. Byatt in Angels and Insects, that these people are trapped by their biology (or their country's political regime)? The question is left lingering in the air as other echoes, from both Frankenstein and the natural world that surrounds them -- friendly dogs, creepy cats, poisonous mushrooms, etc. -- build on top of each other.
Over the years, the elusive Erice, who has issued only three features in over three decades, has been compared to everyone from Werner Herzog to Terence Malick, but to my mind, Spirit of the Beehive plays more like the film one-shot director Charles Laughton would've made had he moved to Spain, switched to (honey-hued) color stock, traded German Expressionism for magical realism, and, of course -- made another film as miraculous as 1955's Night of the Hunter. Erice has done just that.
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Spirit of the Beehive, in a brand new 35mm print, plays Mar. 24-30, Fri.-Thurs. at 7 and 9pm (Sat. and Sun. at 3pm) at the Northwest Film Forum. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

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