Thinking back on your childhood, it might be hard to recollect the first movie you remember seeing, but it’s probably very easy to remember the first movie that truly frightened you. As a child, one of the first movies I remember genuinely scaring me was Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws. I don’t remember any of the specifics of watching it – where I was, who I was with, or how I reacted to certain scenes – but what I do recall is the looming effect it left over my life afterwards. I don’t remember if I was deathly afraid of the ocean before I watched Jaws, but I most definitely was from that moment on. Movies can do that to a child’s brain – especially movies about monsters. At that age, the lines between dreams, fiction, and reality are not yet firmly drawn, and to an impressionable young mind movies can actively confuse those boundaries. Far from a destructive disruption, however, this disorientation often spurs a more creative and even magical outlook on the world, even if that worldview is now tainted with new fears or worries.
It might seem odd to be discussing my personal experience with Jaws when this piece is supposed to be about Víctor Erice‘s The Spirit of the Beehive, a ponderous and perplexing Spanish drama from 1973 about a girl in early Franco-era Spain, but in truth this is a film very much about this relationship between movies, monsters, and children. Ana (Ana Torrent), the subject of the film, is a young girl living in a remote Spanish village with her often absent parents and mischievous sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería). A mobile movie theater brings the 1931 Universal classic Frankenstein to Ana’s village, and in the film’s magical opening moments we watch as this impressionable young girl and her sister experience their first monster movie. Ana’s reaction to the film is powerful, so powerful in fact that it seems to inform and color every consecutive moment of her inexperienced worldview for the rest of the film.
Ana’s sister Isabel, ever the prankster, convinces her sibling after a bedside discussion of the film that while the movie itself is “fake”, Frankenstein’s monster is in fact real and lives in a nearby sheepfold. On a solo visit to the stable, Ana suddenly stumbles upon a wounded rebel soldier hiding there. Perhaps believing him to be the monster, she treats him with naive curiosity and brings him food and clothing. And yet, just as in her film the townspeople killed the innocent monster, so in this film do the Francoist police track the soldier down and murder him too. The parallels are fascinating, more for what they signify for cinema and its real-world relationship to us than any political context. Did the act of watching Frankenstein, a movie that pities more than demonizes its titular “monster”, prepare Ana for this encounter of mercy and compassion?
The closest the film gets to answering this question comes at its most plainly poetic moment. After running away upon discovering that the soldier is dead, Ana looks into the glassy, dark water of a lake and sees the face of Frankenstein’s monster reflected back at her. Regardless of whether watching Frankenstein informed her decision to treat this strange man with kindness rather than fear, Erice seems to suggest that the fictional world of the movie has collided with her view of reality and permanently altered it, leaving her with an indelible impression she’ll carry with her for the rest of her life. I don’t see this as a breakdown, however. Rather than a simple confusion of fact and fiction, as the actress herself suggests in an interview, I believe this to be a circular, more symbiotic fusion of the two. The film helps Ana make sense of her world, and what she then sees in her world helps her make greater sense of the film.
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro cites The Spirit of the Beehive as one of his all-time favorites, a fact that should surprise no one given the striking thematic and narrative similarities it bears to his own work (especially Pan’s Labyrinth, which also concerns a young girl trying to make sense of a fantastical world in the midst of oppression and violence). The Spirit of the Beehive is not violent like much of del Toro’s work, however – in order to avoid the censorship of Franco’s regime (which was still very much in power when the film was made and released), Erice pushes his critique of the fascist government and its brutalizing oppression to the edge of the frame, leaving the horror and cruelty of this era obliquely implied, but rarely seen.
Guillermo del Toro’s love for the film is especially palpable because – just like Ana – he too viewed Frankenstein at a very young age and found the film leaving an enduring impression on him. To me, it’s these endless cycles of personal connection and nostalgic association that make cinema such a profound and universal art form. One can view a film ten, fifty, even a hundred years after it was made, and the ultimate effect can prove just as resounding and emotional as when it was first released. I can’t claim to have personally loved this film (mostly due to its austerity) but I deeply admire and believe in its message of passion for cinema as a force for good. Movies are not just frivolous distractions. Even if we can’t prove it, they can and do have a legitimate impact on how we look at the world and treat others. Few films understand and demonstrate this simple, emphatic truth as gently and as kindly as The Spirit of the Beehive.
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