“The Spirit of the Beehive” - Víctor Erice (1973)

The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la Colmena, 1973) is a Spanish drama with a haunting flavour that sets it apart from almost all other films.  It is a story concerned with imagination, in particular the rich, fertile narrative imaginations that most children are endowed with.  This outstanding film was the inaugural directorial effort of Víctor Erice, who, regrettably, has gone on to direct only one other feature fiction film (El Sur, 1983).  Based on the cinematic skills on display here in The Spirit of the Beehive, Erice deserved to have a long and prolific career in feature filmmaking.  

Other specific aspects of the film’s overall production values are also excellent, with a fascinating original story by Erice and Ángel Fernández Santos, emotive cinematography by Luis Cuadrado, meaningful evocative editing by Pablo González del Amo, and atmospheric music by Luis de Pablo.  In particular, there is a lot of symbolic dynamic imagery, such as the liberating feelings evoked by showing steam trains rapidly moving across the countryside (an image frequently invoked by great filmmakers), that contribute to the film’s poetic canvas.  The result was a film whose reputation has grown steadily over the years [1,2,3,4,5] and is now considered by many to be the greatest Spanish film ever made [2].

The story of The Spirit of the Beehive is set in 1940, just after the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), in the small town of Huelos on the Spanish Castilian plateau.  By 1940 the victors in the civil war, the right-wing forces led by Francisco Franco and supported by the German Nazis, having defeated the progressive Republican government, were fully in power.  Franco would remain in power until 1975, so The Spirit of the Beehive was made while Spain was still under the Francoist regime. Although the Spanish Civil War provides a background political and social context for some events in the film, nevertheless, I do not believe that that aspect should be overemphasized.  It is just one element that colours the thinking of the two principal adult characters in the film.  

The events in the film are centred around a family of four who live in a fading manor house in Huelos:
  • Fernando (played by Fernando Fernán Gómez, the only professional actor in the film) is an elderly gentleman apparently in his fifties who is something of a scholar.  He spends much of his time studying and writing about bees, and he has his own apiary for this purpose.
  • Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) is Fernando’s much younger (thirtyish) and very attractive wife.  She spends much of her ample free time (they have a full-time maid) longing for and writing love letters to her absent paramour, who was a Republican soldier and now may be a refugee.
  • Ana (Ana Torrent) is Fernando’s and Teresa’s shy and impressionable six-year-old daughter.  She is the main character of this story.
  • Isabel (Isabel Tellería) is Ana’s older sister by one or two years.  Isabel is a good-natured but naughty girl who relishes playing tricks on her innocent and gullible younger sister, Ana
All four of these characters live to some degree in isolation from others, and so they have concocted dreamworlds to occupy their imaginations.  
  • Fernando is obsessed with speculations about his bee colony and how the constant agitation on the part of the worker bees seems to be ultimately pointless.  He can artificially stimulate these bees to be even more agitated without their apparently being aware of it.  And he sees this as a metaphor for the purposelessness of all life, including human existence.
  • Teresa lives in her own dreamworld of lost love.  She is not intimate with her husband, Fernando, and prefers her dreamworld to the real world in front of her.
  • Isabel concocts dreamworlds of silly games she likes to play with her schoolmates and false stories she tells to Ana.
  • Ana’s dreamworld, which is the main focus of the film, is, as I will discuss further, different from the others, because she doesn’t see it as a dreamworld.  She sees it as an opportunity to have authentic, meaningful engagement with another person who seeks her company and could enrich her life.
The Spirit of the Beehive narrative passes roughly through three main phases.

1.  The Family’s Dreamworlds
In 1940 a travelling cinema projection team has come to Huelos to setup their projector in the town hall and show the film Frankenstein (1931) to the locals.  All the kids, including Isabel and Ana, are excited about seeing the film and flock to the makeshift projection theater.  Meanwhile Fernando is shown immersed in attending to his bee colony.  And his wife, Teresa, is shown at home writing a forlorn love letter to her distant lover, whose current circumstances are unclear.

While watching Frankenstein, Ana becomes particularly fascinated with a scene in which Frankenstein’s Monster befriends a young girl of about Ana’s age and winds up accidentally drowning her.  Later that night when Ana and Isabel are in their bedroom, Ana wants her sister to explain to her why the Monster killed the young girl and why the villagers then killed the Monster.  Isabel, who delights in fooling her gullible younger sister, tells her that the Monster was not killed and in fact she has seen him living in an abandoned farmhouse nearby.  She also tells Ana that the monster is really a spirit and cannot be killed.  She adds that the Monster only comes out at night, but if you’re his friend, you can talk to him anytime – just say “It’s me, Ana”.

Ana fully buys into Isabel’s story and becomes obsessed with finding this spirit so that she can become its friend.  Clearly the innocent Ana has been bewitched by the tender scene between the girl and the Monster she saw in the movie, and she wants to find the spirit and become its friend.

2.  Ana and Isabel
In the next phase we see more of the contrast between Ana and Isabel.  While Ana is innocent and shy, Isabel is devilishly provocative.  And the film artfully shows their distinctive natures by means of natural behaviours.  In particular, Ana’s inherent wonder at the world around her is sensitively displayed by means of her earnest gaze.  

One especially important issue for kids, which they think about all the time, is the subject of death.  Adults, including Fernando and Teresa in this film, assume that death is a matter that is too complex and profound for kids to think about, but they are wrong.  Kids are at least as perplexed and disturbed by death as adults are, and I can remember when I was about Ana’s age often thinking and worrying about death and what it meant.  Certainly Ana and Isabel are not exceptions, and, of course, seeing the movie Frankenstein only fanned the flames of their fascination.

To further expand on her monster story that she told Ana, Isabel takes her sister to the abandoned farmhouse that she mentioned in order to look for the Monster.  Of course, they don’t find anything, but Ana is convinced that the Monster/Spirit must be there at night.  So she later several times sneaks out of her house at night to visit the farmhouse and see if she can find the Monster.   

There are other death-oriented scenes in this section, too.  One shows Fernando taking his daughters out in the forest to warn them about the deadly effects of eating a toadstool.  The thought that such an innocent-looking little plant could have such lethal consequences has a disturbing effect on the quiet Ana.  

In another scene, Isabel is shown experimentally choking the family’s pet cat almost to death in order to explore her fantasies of killing a companion.  Most disturbing of all is a scene in which Isabel convincingly pretends to be dead in front of Ana.  Ana’s attempts to revive her sister are of no avail, and she becomes greatly disturbed.

So for Isabel, life is a set of games.  But for Ana, life is a mystery.

3.  The Monster/Spirit Appears
Later we see a Spanish Republican activist on the run from the Francoist authorities.  He leaps from a speeding freight train, injures his ankle, and manages to limp his way to the abandoned farmhouse, where he seeks temporary refuge out of sight.  That night Ana makes one of her middle-of-the-night inspections of the abandoned farmhouse and encounters the Republican activist, who she takes to be the embodiment of the Monster/Spirit she is seeking.  Ana quickly tries to help her new spirit friend, as she tends to his injured ankle and brings him some food and her father’s coat.  

But when Ana is away, the Francoist police come to the farmhouse and machine-gun the Republican activist to death.  Since the police found Fernando’s coat and pocket watch with the activist when they killed him, they place Fernando under suspicion.  And Fernando, in turn, suspects Ana stole his coat.  

The next time Ana goes to the farmhouse looking for her special spirit friend, she is dismayed to find only bloodstains.  When her suspicious father tracks her there and calls her to come to him, the horrified girl runs away into the fields and disappears from view.

A massive village search operation ensues that engages in looking for Ana through the night, and she is finally found the next day, barely conscious.  Although Ana was physically unharmed, she is now uncommunicative, or so it seems.  Her only attempts at communication now are when she is alone at night and goes to the window and calls out, “it’s me, Ana”.  

So Ana, like her mother and father, ends up isolated and living in a dreamworld.  But their dreamworlds are all different.  Fernando’s dreamworld is one of lonely scientific investigation in order to unlock the objective truths of uncaring nature.  He is despondent over his own pessimistic speculations concerning the absurdity of existence.  Teresa’s lonely dreamworld is one of hopeless and forlorn love for a lover who may no longer even exist.  Ana’s dreamworld, however, is more mystical and more selfless.  She is seeking to reach out and engage with a magical, spiritual other, whose interactive possibilities seem to be thrilling and boundless.  

In fact if we stop to think about it, most of us are, at least unconsciously, in similar shoes.  When we seek God, we are hoping to find profound engagement with a supreme spiritual agency – a dynamic agent-to-agent interaction, not just arrive at some state of lifeless static perfection.  We intuitively feel that life inherently involves interactive dynamism, not stasis, and, like Ana, we are looking for the blissful possibilities of potential interactions that may be out there.  

The Spirit of the Beehive beautifully explores this space in perhaps the only way possible – through the eyes of a sensitive, innocent child.

  1. Nicolas Rapold, “The Depth of a Child's Gaze”, The New York Sun, (27  January 2006).   
  2. Paul Julian Smith, “The Spirit of the Beehive: Spanish Lessons”, The Criterion Collection, (18 September 2006).  
  3. Bill Gibron, “Past Perfect: Criterion Classics – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)”, PopMatters, (28 November 2006).   
  4. Roger Ebert, "Everything in the movies is fake", Great Movies, RogerEbert.com, (20 November 2012).   
  5. Acquarello, “The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena), 1973", Strictly Film School, (24 December 2017; 8 January 2018).    

Víctor Erice

Films of Víctor Erice:

“Wheel of Time” - Werner Herzog (2003)

Werner Herzog, one of the greatest filmmakers, is one of my favorites.  Over the course of his prolific career covering the direction of some twenty dramatic feature films and more than thirty documentary features, he has invariably cast his unique vision across a wide range of subject matter, much of it with an existentialist philosophy tinge.  Thus he often travels to remote locations to observe how people deal with the extreme conditions there.  This is what I find particularly fascinating about Herzog: he is a philosopher with a movie camera.  The Herzog film I will be discussing here, Wheel of Time (2003), which he wrote, directed, and narrated, is very explicitly aimed in this philosophical direction, because it is concerned with the passions and rituals of Buddhist monks.  The film featured cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger and film editing by Joe Bini, and as usual with Herzog films, one gets the feeling that a good part of the film’s story was composed in the editing room.  And also as usual with Herzog films, it was well-received by a range of critics [1,2,3,4,5].

The specific subject matter of the film concerns the elaborate Kalachakra Initiation ceremony for Tibetan Buddhists (note that ‘Kalachakra’ is a term in Vajrayana Buddhism that means "wheel of time") that is held every two or three years at a place chosen each time by the Dalai Lama.  This event typically attracts some 500,000 Tibetan initiates and pilgrims from all over Asia who wish to participate in the elaborate rituals over the course of ten days and ten nights.  On this occasion, in January 2002, the chosen place for the Kalachakra ceremonies is very special – Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India.  It was here some 2,500 years ago that Siddhartha Gautama spent seven weeks meditating under the Bodhi Tree (a sacred fig tree there) and reached enlightenment, thereby achieving the status of the Buddha.  Bodh Gaya is also the site of the associated Mahabodhi Temple.

The film begins with some physical shots of the Bodh Gaya area, and then it shows the many pilgrims arriving for the Kalachakra events.  Some of these pilgrims are so devout that they make their jouney to the Kalachakra event entirely on foot, and after every step or so they fully prostrate themselves in obeisance.  Herzog shows some of them reverentially following this practice over all sorts rough terrain, and the whole journey to their holy destination can take many months, even years.  These pilgrims are mostly poor people, but some of them at least bring pup tents in which they can sleep in the temple yards overnight.  The rest of them must just sleep outside in the open.  

The principal activities of the Kalachakra activities fall into three main categories:
  • Buddhist teachings and prayers conducted by lamas and monks,
  • The construction and display of the great Kalachakra Mandala, an elaborate symbolic design made out of colored sand that is an important artefact of Tibetan Buddhism [6,7], 
  • The closing initiation ceremonies for the aspirant Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Of these activities, a considerable amount of Wheel of Time screen time is devoted to showing the detailed construction of the Kalachakra Mandala.  This is made of loose, colored sand, the tiny individual granules of which must be so carefully placed  that they collectively form an incredibly intricate design.  This takes a number of sand artists manydays to complete. Once completed, the Kalachakra Mandala is seven feet in diameter and displays visual references to 722 deities.  Since the mandala is made only of loose sand, it must be protected from the approach of onlookers and even casual breezes which could disturb it, so it is walled off by a glass partitioning surrounding it.  

But after the mandala’s construction and display to the monks and pilgrims at the end of the usual Kalachakra ceremonies, all the sand of the entire mandala is collected and ritualistically thrown into the river, thereby symbolizing the utter ephemerality of existence.  
Just before the halfway point in the film, Herzog takes time out to go off on his own with his own camera and visit another sacred Buddhist site, Mount Kailash in western Tibet.  Thousands of pilgrims come to this 22,000 foot mountain at a specific time every year  (Herzog came in May 2002) to carry out a high-altitude circumnavigation of the peak, which they believe will bring them holy salvation.  The 52 km trek around the peak that the pilgrims take is at an altitude of 18,000 feet, and sadly every year, some pilgrims who are not appropriately acclimatized to these heights die from exhaustion.

At other points in the film we see brief clips of the Dalai Lama speaking in closeup on a few topics.  He is always relaxed and reasonable, and one his more interesting remarks was his comment that all religions carry the same message.  It would be good if more people felt that way.  The Dalai Lama is, of course, the star personage of the Kalachakra Initiation ceremonies, but unfortunately his health at this time was not good, and he was unable to carry out his required, full participation in the ceremonies.  This was naturally very disappointing to the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had come to Bodh Gaya, as well as to the Dalai Lama, himself.  But he promised to all the practitioners that he would come back there to see them all the following year.

The scene now shifts to another ten-day Kalachakra Initiation ceremony that was held later that year – in October 2002 in Graz, Austria.  This time the attendees are mostly European Buddhists, and the number of participants are in the thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands.  And  now the Dalai Lama is healthy and fully participating.  Also present is famed Buddhist monk and communicator Matthieu Ricard, who often serves as the Dalai Lama’s translator.

One of the highlights of this section of the film is the showing and description of a Tibetan Buddhist monk and pilgrim, Takna Jingme Sangpo, who, partly thanks to international protests, had recently been released from prison in Tibet after being held there under cruel conditions by the Chinese overlords for 37 years.  Sangpo’s only crimes were apparently his public expression on a few occasions that he supported a “Free Tibet”.  Despite his extreme hardships, Sangpo, is now overjoyed that he now, finally has the opportunity to see the Dalai Lama in the flesh for the first time.

At this Kalachakra Initiation event in Graz, another elaborate Kalachakra Mandala is duly constructed out of colored sand and displayed.  And at the end of these ceremonies, a healthy Dalai Lama performs the ritual act of dispersing the collected mandala sand into the Mur river there.  

Overall, Herzog’s Wheel of Time does provide a lot of information about the Kalachakra ceremonies.  But what lingers most in my mind after watching it is something else that he has captured on film.  And that is the extraordinary religious fervor that you can see silently expressed on all the faces of the vast crowds of pilgrims shown.  These dedicated practitioners are not boisterous; they are not broadcasting. Instead, they are wholly devoted to their spiritual path of seeking total purity and enlightenment.  Herzog does not articulate or discuss this issue.  He directly shows it on a thousand faces.

  1. Walter Addiego, 'Wheel of Time', Film Clips, SFGATE, (22 July 2005).  
  2. Dennis Schwartz, “Wheel of Time”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (n.d.).   
  3. Ed Howard, “11/8: Wheel of Time; The Flowers of St. Francis”, Only The Cinema, (8 November 2007).   
  4. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “Wheel of Time”, Spirituality & Practice, (2005).   
  5. Stephen Holden, “With Herzog, Inside a World of Devotion”, The New York Times, (15 June 2005).      
  6. “Mandala”, Wikipedia, (15 June 2021).   
  7. “Sand mandala”, Wikipedia, (29 April 2021).