The monster is not what society has repressed, but what society adheres to
– Peter Evans, 1982
Haunting and ethereal, Victor Erice’s debut El Espiritu de la Colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) is considered a canonical work in post-war Spanish cinema. Under the dictatorship that lasted from 1939 to 1978, Spain remained politically isolated and its cinema distant from the new wave currents sweeping Europe in the 1960s. Released in 1973 as the Franco regime was waning, El Espiritu de la Colmena, like much oppositional cinema from the era, relies on obliqueness and allegory to circumvent state censorship. Through symbolism and ellipsis, the film offers a veiled critique of the cultural monotony of the fascist era, as well as the constraints induced by gender socialisation.
The film follows a young girl, Ana (Ana Torrent) as she and her older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) become entranced by the figure of Frankenstein’s monster after a village screening of the 1931 Hollywood classic. Ana’s family lives in bourgeois comfort, their warm-hued house mirroring the order and stability of the beehives that Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), Ana’s father, cultivates. The bees that assiduously labour under the shadow of Fernando’s omnipotent gloved hands evoke the looming overreach of patriarchal authority, and compliance with fascism. The monster, on the other hand, occupies Ana’s obsessive thoughts, sometimes in lurid imaginative sequences and sometimes in banal, quotidian settings. The fantastical visions offer a respite from the trauma of Francoism and a startling break from the monotony of the fascist desire to implement ordered life. Shrouded by a ‘significant silence’ (Paul Julian Smith, 1993), Ana moves in a world in which empathy with the monstrous outcast is her only alternative to society’s fetters. The film contains little dialogue, leaving the viewer reliant on the visual associations created by Erice’s use of camera angle and construction of gaze.
The film draws on established paradigms and visual associations of the gothic horror genre. The Castilian landscape is stark, beige and monotonous, dominated by a road that stretches onwards, its end point ambiguous. In one of the opening scenes there is a close-up of Fernando in his beekeeper’s mask, resembling the monster of Ana’s imagination. This could be to suggest a Freudian desire in Ana for connection with her father, but it may also imply the Monster cannot be Other because it is embedded firmly within the family as one of society’s fundamental institutions. Ambiguously, Fernando is often presented more as benevolent teacher to Ana than authoritarian patriarch. It is in this opaque characterisation that Erice depicts the complexity of family life as it intersects with the repressive Francoist political apparatus. The family unit can both be seen as embodying the state in microcosm, while also presenting a point of departure from its norms.
In a scene laden with allegory, Ana and Isabel go mushroom picking with their father. Fernando is teaching the children the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms, declaring a latter variety ‘un autentico demonio’ (a real devil) in words which evoke visions of the supernatural. The mushrooms are rigidly either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, determined by the knowledge passed down to Fernando from his grandfather. He tells the children, ‘Hago siempre lo que me decia mi abuelo’ (I always do what my grandfather told me): knowledge and its exercise are the preserve and product of patriarchal lineage. In a close-up shot, Fernando grimly crushes the poisonous mushroom (‘the most dangerous of all’) underneath his shoe; Ana’s troubled face as she stares downwards here implies dissent from her father’s vision and intellectual hegemony.
Fernando also points to the misty mountain, declaring that this is where the best mushrooms can be found. He makes the two girls promise never to tell their mother Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) about the plan to go to the mountain, reinforcing secrecy, deception and silence within the family unit, denying his wife inclusion in this patrilineal knowledge. Teresa’s exclusion highlights how patriarchy is complicated by lines of generation; Fernando may impart his own knowledge to his daughters, whom he sees as extensions of himself, but omits his wife who operates to a large degree, socially independently of him. In the opening scene, for instance, Teresa is shown writing a letter to an unnamed man – apparently an escaped Republican soldier in France.
Jaime Pena advances an interesting interpretation of the political significance of the misty mountain, arguing that many maquis (Spanish guerrillas exiled in France after the Civil War) also known as ‘hombres del monte’ (men of the mountain) hid in the mountains to continue the fight against fascism. The good mushrooms to which Fernando refers would appear to symbolize these anti-fascist fighters.
If female submission and sexual acquiescence are at the heart of gothic horror in its mainstream manifestations, The Spirit of the Beehive largely subverts these conventions of the genre. In iconic films such as Dracula (1931), which stars Bela Lugosi, and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the female protagonists are routinely defined by their subjection to male torture. Gothic monsters have of course, traditionally had gendered connotations, which are fed by a number of deep-rooted cultural preoccupations. On the one hand, the link between woman and monster has been established: as Linda Williams argues, the female ‘recognises the sense in which this freakishness [of the monster] is similar to her own difference’. Women are compelled to identify with the ‘monster’ because both are othered by patriarchy. Yet on the other hand, the supernatural Monster arises as mythic representation of male sexual dominance and violence against women.
In Erice’s film, Ana’s fixation with the monster arises out of her own nascent sense of difference, both from family and society. This sense of difference becomes exemplified in her tentative friendship with an escaped Republican soldier. Ana finds the fugitive in an abandoned shed and befriends him, echoing the way in which the girl in the Hollywood film likewise befriends Frankenstein’s monster. The figure of Frankenstein’s monster is reified in the form of this soldier, who is then murdered by the authorities. In the fascist regime the Republican soldier is othered, as with Frankenstein, and indeed Ana herself. As an outsider, the soldier offers contact with a world beyond the dreary confines of her village and provokes a rupture in the false harmony of Ana’s childhood existence.
Through being mesmerized by the spectre of the monster, Ana comes to disassociate herself from her family and thereby to undercut the implacable hierarchy of the patriarchal family. She flees into the countryside overnight, swallowed up by the telluric hues of the Castilian fields in a torrid escape. A village search party retrieves her and the doctor declares her alive, as Frankenstein too injects life into his monstrous creation. But Ana’s paralysis and her sudden alienation from her family and community comes as a moment of crisis in the film. Her inability to endure the restrictive binds of reality evokes notions of female breakdown often found in literature and cinematic representations of gothic horror.
Gender socialisation is also probed poignantly in the relationship between Ana and Isabel, which revolves around a somewhat problematic good-versus-evil dichotomy. In a mystical scene where Isobel and other children leap through a bonfire, Erice consolidates the sense of other-worldliness and witchcraft around both children. Yet the audience is encouraged to identify with Ana as the pensive observer. Ana stares languidly into the flames, but it is Isobel who leaps through them, lithe and impish.
Both girls embody different aspects of the gothic horror trope: where Ana is trusting and sensitive, with eyes wide like dark and gentle oceans, Isobel is manipulative and even deviant. In an arresting and startling scene with the family’s black cat, Isabel begins by fondling and stroking the cat, sensually rubbing her face against it, but then begins squeezing the cat’s neck until its eyes begin to bulge and it shrieks and scratches her finger. In the background, a grubby baby doll and a cherub statue are visible in the shadows, perversely evoking childhood innocence. The scene opens with the camera angle at the cat’s level, encouraging the audience to identify with the cat rather than Isabel. Transfixed in front of a mirror, Isabel wipes the blood on her lips, like lipstick. There are many possible readings of this; it could represent the child’s burgeoning self-consciousness and subconscious awareness that entering the state of womanhood is accompanied by the spectre of blood (through menstruation), but also the attendant violence of patriarchy. Equally, it could be a statement about silence within the Francoist fascist regime, the blood on lips highlighting how societal silence hides the bloodshed left by torture and disappearance.
So, throughout his film, Erice draws upongeneric gothic motifs – but he subverts the genre by vindicating the agency of Ana the protagonist. El Espiritu de la Colmena is a film about the struggle of a young girl to assert her independence from father and society: to break the constraints of the beehive. Ana is not a passive victim of a monster either real or imagined, but ultimately its arbiter or proxy, embodying its spirit of outcast and rebel. In this way, despite its understatement and silence, El Espiritu de la Colmena conveys a subtle and enigmatic critique of patriarchal power.