Victor Erice’s El espíritu de la colmena was made in 1973, just two short years before the death of Franco and four years prior to the end of censorship in Spanish cinemas. Its timing placed it amongst the first Spanish films to be able to give the perspective of the defeated republicans without fear of reprisals. However it avoids the melodramatic pitfalls of political cinema and is far from a bombastic political polemic, instead opting for quiet filmic metaphor and narrative. This essay will look at how Erice captures the cadence of the era through visual style and narrative form.
The opening titles of the film place the narrative firmly in a child’s perspective; this perspective is in fact that of our young protagonist Ana. (Ana Torrent) The children’s illustrations which accompany the credits depict in simplistic detail events and objects that will be seen in the film, these illustrations were made by Torrent herself.
The use of six year old protagonist has stylistic and narrative implications; as Barry Jordan and Mark Allinson point out in their book on Spanish Cinema it is “one of the devices that Erice uses to distance the viewer from the world of the film.” (Jordan and Allinson, 2005, p 66) The film is the story of a child instead of a children’s story, as such it is gap between Ana’s understanding of the world around her and our understanding of the world as audience members which is used to discern meaning.
The opening shots of the film are accompanied by a pair of titles which read ‘Once upon a time…’ and ‘A place on the Castilian Plain around 1940.’ These titles have a quality of vague specificity; that is that although the titles do place the village within the context of a Spanish province shortly after the end of the civil war, no specific name is mentioned making the village and its inhabitants a broad political metaphor for the entire region at that time.
A sense of place is also iterated by the cinematography of Luis Cuadrado and the editing rhythms of Pablo Gonzalez del Amo. As explained in Marsha Kinder’s book ‘Blood Cinema’ “ The strongest germinal images in the film are not Ana’s visions of the monster but the close shots of the beehive and the desolate long shots of the landscapes, night skies, train tracks and village exteriors. When treated with painterly compositions, long takes, and the brilliant elliptical editing rhythms of Spain’s foremost film editor…these images of ordinary objects become detached from the spare narrative line and achieve a powerful resonance – a resonance whose aestheticism goes beyond the boundaries of neorealism.” (Kinder, 1993, p 130)
For example the scene in which the children are arriving at school is shown in a series of elliptical jump cuts which show various numbers of children at various positions in the courtyard as they gather for lessons. In this instance the technique is used to illustrate the everyday and the routine. In another sequence from an ellipse is used to show that night has fallen after Ana leaves her friend the fugitive Maquis. (Juan Francisco Margallo) The dark is momentarily lit by the gun shots and the night ellipses back into the day were we see the official slogan of the civil guard, ‘Everything for the Fatherland.’
This gives us the information that the man was a republican fugitive and tells us who executed him. In this instance the ellipse has been used to narrate extraordinary events that are beyond the comprehension of our protagonist. Marsha kinder describes how these images are used to both narrate and illustrate. “These resonant images seldom answer the narrative questions that define the singularity of the plot. Rather they redirect our attention to the cultural background – to the associative links and mnemonic traces of a personality immersed in the painful events from the past and to the iterative traces of collective history and dominant ideology.” (Kinder, 1993 p133)
Although practically speaking the film shares many stylistic traits with neorealist cinema such as the use of non-actors and location filming, there is a delicate balance in play between a documentary aesthetic and a stride towards a more mythical approach to storytelling.
It is six year old Ana’s fascination with the film Frankenstein (James Whale 1931) which becomes the focal point of the film that moulds Ana’s understanding of the world around her but also serves as a metaphor for life in post war Spain. This symbolism has been explored by many critics including Virginia Higginbotham in her book ‘Spanish Film under Franco’ who describes the link as such; “By referring to the horror myth of Frankenstein, Erice has discovered an uncannily accurate metaphor for Franco’s Spain. As a character without a memory, Frankenstein has no moral sense and, thus can behave kindly, then kill. As a mythical figure himself Frankenstein aptly represents the end result of the Franco Myth.” (Higginbotham p 120)
Kinder also describes this metaphor and highlights the choice of Whale’s adaptation as particularly apt as it “places the greatest emphasis on the dramatic contrast between the monster’s infantile emotions and his adult, giant like body, and also on the patriarchal nature of the powers that pervert and destroy him.” (Kinder, 1993 p128) John Hopewell describes Ana’s fascination with the creature as “part of the collective desire for resurrection that seeps into Spanish culture in the 1940s,” (Hopewell, 1988, p208) and of course there is also the assonance between ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Franco.’
The Frankenstein metaphor is embodied in the character of Fernando (Fernando Fernan Gomez) who is Ana’s father; although not a great deal of detail is explicitly given we are led to see that he was a republican intellectual before the war from the photograph of him with the renowned philosopher Miguel De Unamuno. As Stone describes it “Fernando was a respected academic before the civil war, now redundant in defeat and banished to the anonymity of this nowhere village. Broken and insular.” (Stone 2002, p 89)
Fernando has a similar scientific obsession in his beekeeping and looks suitably grotesque in his beekeeping garb. He is aligned with Dr Frankenstein by the soundtrack as well as the sound of the film comes through the windows a character is telling Dr Frankenstein to sit at the exact moment that Fernando reclines.
Fernando and his wife Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) are both guilty of insular and uncommunicative behaviour. They do not communicate to each other throughout the duration of the film. Fernando is only able to communicate to his beekeeping journals and Teresa to some distant friend or lover through letters. However both do seek news from the outside world, Fernando through his ham radio; a constant symbol of outside communication in Spanish film; and Teresa through her letters and trips to the train station.
Fernando’s representation as a Frankenstein like figure is not lost on Teresa as well. In his book ‘Cain on screen’ Thomas Deveny points out that this link is made visually in the marital bedroom as well. “As Teresa lies awake, we see the shadow of Fernando projected onto the wall behind the bed as he undresses connotating a lack of substance in the husband, and further relating him to the monster, since Isabel had told Ana that he was a spirit with no body.” (Deveney, 1999, p126)
The lack of substance to family life is illustrated visually. Higginbotham describes the family house as almost qualifying “as the typical haunted house of horror film. It is large empty, and since the family has no electricity, dimly lit.” (Higginbotham, 1988, 117.) There is also the Hexagonal panes of glass on the window glass which resemble compartments of the beehive and conjure images of compartmentalised colonial living. The house is presented as a shared living space as opposed to a family home.
In short what is illustrated by the film in a very real and vivid way is a portrait of a Spanish family coming to terms with major change and upheaval individually and not working through the change together.
“It demonstrates that under the pressures of a war that divided the nation, the family, and the individual, an entire generation of impressionable children felt a mixture of love and fear for repressive patriarchs – a combination that generated distorted fantasies of heroic allegiance and rebellious patricide and that had led them to identify with both the victim and the monster.” (Kinder, 1993, p128)
Although the majority of the film does present us with a vivid portrait of a fractured and damaged Spain we are not left to feel that all is lost for the Spanish way of life; Indeed as already referred to in this essay the end of Franco’s rule was shortcoming and hope was very much alive.
The resilience of children is stressed; when Ana is found after running away following the death of the fugitive the doctor offers a note of optimism. ‘little by little she will forget.’ Ana represents a generation of Spanish children who will survive beyond the immediate effects of the war.
The family is also seen to be pulled back together by the trauma of the missing child and the relief at her well being. Fernando sleeps at his desk after spending the night looking for his daughter. Teresa, who has been writing another letter decides to burn the letter and tenderly puts a blanket over her husband’s shoulders. Rob Stone describes this as a reawakening of the nurturing instinct.”(Stone, 2002, p95) This is also a choice by Teresa to stop reaching out for what is distant and lost and to connect with what is right in front of her, the suggestion is that little by little life will return to normal.
The film is designed to provoke thought and as such is a tool of the hope and change that it is trying to promote. First of all it is significant that the film is set 30 years before it was made. As such the viewer has the benefit of 30 years of hindsight to reflect on the political and social ramifications of the story. The viewer is left to add up all the “little by little” returns to normality that they have been apart of over the previous 30 years.
Also the child protagonist and narrative style is vital; the gap between viewer and protagonist perception is how the audience discerns narrative meaning, as such the viewer is left to feel in a position of intellectual power that distances them from the film and allows them to contemplate its implications. The message is that the stagnation of life in Francoist Spain cannot be and will not be permanent.
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