I first saw The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) early in my career as an cinephile, at my college's film society. At the time, I felt it was slow and lovely, but pointless. Since we've been watching Guillermo del Toro, I've been thinking about it more and more. And finally (after sending one broken disc), Netflix has allowed me to revisit it.
It takes place in a small town of Hoyuelos, shortly after the Spanish Civil War. A travelling cinema has brought James Whale's Frankenstein to town, and everyone comes to watch it, even the kids. Two little girls run home screaming in delighted terror, but afterwards, one asks the other why the monster killed the girl. The older sister tells her that it's all fake, it's just a movie, the monster is really a spirit, and he lives in a deserted farmhouse not too far away. This is the start of the young girl's obsession with Frankenstein's monster.
Others in the house have other obsessions. The father, an older intellectual type, keeps bees, and seems to be writing about their social organization as a metaphor for... The mother, younger and beautiful, is engaged in a correspondence with ... someone. She pretends to be asleep when her husband comes to bed, although we don't know why.
What we do know is how it is filmed, in a long close-up on her face while we only hear someone in the background, and see some shadows on the wall - you only guess that she is pretending to be asleep while her husband is getting into bed. Spirit doesn't really tell you what is going on or why. This is probably why I thought it was pointless when I first saw it.
The movie is full of scenes like this, and scenes where even less happens. A long take of a street, or the Spanish plains, or one of the sisters looking at the other. I guess this is the kind of thing they were going for in Uncle Boonmee, although I found it more successful here. It really is beautiful, and very Spanish.
I wonder if del Toro took some of his themes from this movie, or if they are just part of the Spanish character. The older man with the more glamorous wife in the old mansion, the watch, the wide open empty plains, and the children.
The little girls in this are amazing, both beautiful, expressive and mysterious. It was a little strange to see them in lipstick, but I assume that was film makeup that wasn't as subtle as it was supposed to be. But so much of this movie is just gazing at these opaque little creatures, you notice things like that.
I feel like I should mention some of the subtle things the movie says about, for example, the Civil War: do the two girls represent the Loyalists and Falange? Or about the mother's secret, if it is indeed a secret from anyone but we the viewers. And what is the symbolism of the bees?
But I don't know about any of that. I just know what I saw. It's a beautiful movie, full of light and space and people. Watch it for that.