One of the most frustrating experiences one can have with art is to experience it, be affected by it, and not in turn be able concretely to express one’s appreciation. Unfortunately, I am at just such an impasse with The Spirit of the Beehive. I feel like I missed something, like I didn’t get it, and that perhaps if I watched it again I would be better positioned to blog about it. No doubt I would. Any work of art worth experiencing once is worth experiencing twice, and a first reading or viewing will always necessarily be burdened with simply following the plot. Nevertheless, here’s my go at it.
One of my favorite quotes is the criticism that, “Nothing happens in Chekhov.” This criticism can easily be broadened to encompass most, for lack of a better word, “high art,” as serious artistic works often target the portrayal of mental states rather than action. Consequently, they require more patience. This goes doubly for this particular film. Nothing happens in The Spirit of the Beehive. Set in Spain “around 1940,” the story, insofar as the film has a story, revolves around Anna, a young girl, and her slightly older sister, Isabel. The two attend a local showing of Frankenstein, and Anna, confused by the film, asks Isabel why the monster kills the girl and why the villagers, in turn, kill the monster. Somewhat of a prankster, Isabel tells her sister that in fact neither are killed and that the monster is a spirit who exists nearby and who can be summoned upon befriending him. This experience colors the rest of film, and subsequent events are important only insofar as they extend and/or echo Anna’s point of view.
Though no doubt not for everybody, this movie is nonetheless well worth watching. To call it “atmospheric” would be a gross understatement. If you like Picnic at Hanging Rock, you’ll probably like this. The composition, in particular, is remarkable. Nearly every frame could be a painting unto itself. It is one of the most visually arresting films I have ever seen and stands as a clinic in minimalism and film composition. Surprisingly creepy at points, the film also very successfully conveys the sense of dread that comes from the presence of death, which hovers just in the background throughout the film, a reflection of the film’s post-civil war setting.