Saturday, April 9, 2011
"Once Upon a Time": The Spirit of the Beehive by Victor Erice, 1973
I think I held my breath for most of this film. Every moment, from the opening scene to each subsequent beat, was so perfectly constructed, so beautiful, I could not believe it could sustain itself, could not believe it would not stumble at some point. But it didn’t – and when it was over, I was left with that sort of ecstasy you experience when you’ve just stood in front of a master work of art and a Something that is transcendent intrudes into your life.
I don’t pretend to know exactly what this film means though I know it is rich in metaphor and symbolism and reading a bit about the historical context tells me it is speaking to the political situation in Spain at the time. But it’s not one of those films that needs to be understood fully in order to feel you are being immersed into its world. The film tells its viewers – or perhaps I should say, participants - from the beginning that it is a fable or fairy tale, beginning with the words on the screen, "Once upon a time" and so invites us to read its metaphors, but the fable world feels so real, that like the best fables, it doesn’t seem like a fable at all.
The storytelling is stripped down to its barest form – it is richly full of visual cues and contains very little dialogue - and yet somehow all the structure of a story is there, from set-up to denoument. And each character is made rounded and full with sure, spare strokes – we know the father, wrapped in his own life and private, philosophical thoughts about bees and hives; the mother, so distant and also wrapped in her own thoughts and in another love; and the two children, the older and rather cruelly mischievous Teresa, and the younger Ana, whose dark eyes are pools of still, grave sadness, and, for one or two brief, dazzling moments, sheer innocent delight. The family lives together in their big house, but the rooms and long corridors feel as bare as the storytelling, and the people in the house seem never to be together, each isolated from the other – a metaphor for something that I feel but do not yet understand.
The film opens as a travelling picture show comes to town, and the villagers gather to watch Frankenstein, and in it that horrifying monster who carries with him such pathos.
And here, in these moments of watching the way a film, the way a moment in a film, a character in a film, captivates and takes hold of the imagination of our young protagonist, Ana, is where I began holding my breath. All the joy of film, of art, of imagination, of the way our experiences of film and art can be such deeply personal experiences, uniquely tuned to who we are as individuals is here in these first moments and carried delicately and deftly all the way into the final moments. I don’t think the film is about the experience of film, primarily, but I could not help but see the joy and power of film here.
Along with its subtle, rich storytelling, The Spirit of the Beehive is one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve seen. Frame after frame of perfectly composed, perfectly lit shots – the interiors, the close-ups, and the exteriors with the wide expanses of bare land and hills, all individually stunning and all united around visual themes, colors. As I sit and write, I can see shot after shot in my mind’s eye, each holding a kind of visceral and emotional depth that I feel even if I, again, don’t always understand: the crushed, oozing mushroom; the ridges of tilled land Ana’s feet run and stumble over to get to the lone, abandoned building; the yellow honey-combed panes of the windows in the family’s home; Ana’s face mirrored in the pond with the sorrowful face of the monster fuzzily in the background; the long, winding road and a single bicycle trailing away on it; Teresa playing and jumping over and through the flames of a fire while Ana watches from the edges of the light; Ana’s foot pressing into a large footprint.
This is one of those films that has been, dimly, on the edges of my consciousness as something I "should see sometime." When I began it, I realized there would be no “should” about it – it is all desire and answered delight. It's a film that deserves more specific querying and close analysis, but for now, I'm content just to bask in its emotional, visual richness.