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Related Reading: Indecent Exposures: Buñuel, Saura, Erice and Almodóvar by Gwynne Edwards.

El Espíritu de la Colmena, 1973
[The Spirit of the Beehive]

TorrentA detached, preoccupied scientist, Fernando (Fernando Fernan Gomez), has moved to the provincial tranquility of Castille with his young family in order to devote his time to the study of bees. He spends countless hours at an apiary observing their daily ritual, manipulating their environment, recording the results of his intervention. His wife, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), languishing from the isolation of the remote town and her husband's alienated affection, occupies her time by writing longing, heartfelt letters to loved ones left behind during the war. She hand delivers the letters to the train station, where a commuter train makes a brief stop, collects the mail, and sets out to its final destination. The children, Isabel (Isabel Telleria) and Ana (Ana Torrent), left alone to occupy themselves in their mother's absence, attend the screening of Frankenstein at a makeshift movie theater in town. Ana, unsettled by the incomprehensible acts of the monster and the townspeople in the film, relentlessly asks Isabel to rationalize their actions. Isabel pacifies Ana by explaining that the monster is actually a spirit who cannot die, and takes the gullible Ana to an abandoned barn where she claims to see the spirit in the well. Intrigued by the prospect of finding the elusive spirit, Ana becomes obsessed with the idea of befriending the imaginary monster.

The Spirit of the Beehive is a visually poetic, haunting, and allegorical film on innocence, illusion, and isolation. Victor Erice uses the recurrent imagery of the beehive to create a pervasive sense of claustrophobia and geographic disconnection: the honeycomb structure of the stain glass windows through the house; the amber glow of the oil lamps and candles; the pervasive haze of the darkness of winter. Filmed in 1973 under the Franco regime, The Spirit of the Beehive is a deceptively lyrical tale of idyllic childhood memories and a disturbing portrait of isolation. Like the bees in Fernando's experiments, the children are also unwitting subjects of an unnatural, artificial environment. In essence, Ana's misguided actions mirror the illogical behavior of the disoriented bees attempting to adapt to an inorganic crystal beehive. Isolated from a natural environment, Ana, too, lacks a logical frame of reference. Her attempts to incarnate the spirit of the monster is a naive attempt to reconcile her own confusion. But inevitably, her quest leads further into the darkness - to more incomprehensible revelations - to deeper questions.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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El Sur, 1983

ArangurenA pensive adolescent named Estrella (Icíar Bollaín) awakens at dawn to the alarming sound of barking dogs that progresses to an increasingly audible, anxious commotion downstairs as Estrella's panicked mother, Julia (Lola Cardona) calls in vain for her husband Agustín (Omero Antonutti) and, upon discovering that he had mysteriously disappeared sometime during the night, awakens the housekeeper to help her search for him around the expansive, neighboring grounds of their rented country home. Meanwhile, underneath her pillow, Estrella discovers a small box containing a shiny pendant suspended on a chain - the same divining article that, as she recounts in an adult voiceover, he had suspended fifteen years earlier above his then-expectant wife's distended stomach before predicting that she would give birth to a daughter - an episode that the young lady had, admittedly, perhaps invented in her own fanciful imagination to explain her profound connection to her father. The implications of the early morning's frantic activity then contextually unfolds through the eyes of a younger Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) who, at the age of eight, is traveling with her parents on a cross-country train in order to relocate to northern Spain where her doting father has accepted - perhaps, reluctantly - a position as a staff physician at a rural hospital. Fueled in part by curiosity over her father's perennially unrequited, romanticized longing to return to the southern city of Sevilla, as well as her parents' palpable estrangement and pervasive silence over the nebulous circumstances that have brought them to their seemingly imposed exile in the north (in an explanation that is further muddled by her father's gregarious and animated former governess, Milagros' (Rafaela Aparicio) explanation of the rift between the republican Agustín and his pro-Franco father as a simplistic, but puzzling family feud caused by supporting opposite factions of illogically shifting "good" and the "bad" sides during the Spanish Civil War), Estrella attempts to piece together the intriguing fragments of her beloved father's enigmatic past and impenetrable emotional façade, a puzzle that begins to take a bittersweet and disillusioning form after she encounters her father's motorcycle near a surrogate place of dreams: the CineArcadia that is screening a melodrama entitled Flor en la Sombre featuring a luminous actress named Irene Ríos (Aurore Clément).

Based on the novel by Adelaida García Morales,
El Sur is a deceptively lyrical and delicately realized, yet haunting portrait of maturation, estrangement, alienation, and dislocation. Victor Erice achieves an atmosphere that is both naturalistic and mystical by shooting in natural light to visually reinforce hues and gradations that, in turn, reflect Estrella's gradual perceptional shift towards her father. Exploring similar themes that would also pervade Theo Angelopoulos' subsequent 1986 film, The Beekeeper, Victor Erice draws an implicit correlation between geographic division and the legacy of civil war: the parallel rites of passage between the marriage of Spyros' daughter in The Beekeeper and Estrella's first holy communion in El Sur; the profoundly isolated Spyros' apicultural migration to the south that represents a similar lure of an ephemeral (or unrequited) paradise lost to the melancholic and withdrawn Agustín (as well as both filmmakers' paradoxical characterization of the south as a destination that represents vitality and figurative death); the complex role of the cinema as a place of escape and also a contemplative medium for introspection and personal assessment. Erice further integrally incorporates cinema into the development of the multilayered narrative through a passing homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (through a preview poster at the CineArcadia) that uncoincidentally bears a similar plot of a young woman's demystification of her idolized, charismatic uncle with whom she believes she shares a profound connection (also note a similar integration of homage and narrative Erice's earlier film, The Spirit of the Beehive and the James Whale film, Frankenstein). However, unlike the intrigue of the seminal Hitchcock film, the mystery of El Sur unravels with the imperceptible weight of a tossed skein of red yarn - exposing, not a barbarous crime, but the unendurable realization of being ordinary and unremarkably human.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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El Sol del Membrillo, 1992
[The Quince Tree Sun/The Dream of Light]

Lopez GarciaIn the autumn of 1990, renowned Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia enters his Madrid studio and begins to assemble a large canvas for his new painting. The subject of his still life is a fruit laden quince tree in the courtyard. Lopez proves to be a meticulous craftsman. He drives three long poles into the ground around the perimeter of the tree and suspends a plumb line in order to determine the center of the painting. He runs a tube of white paint along a brick wall in the background to demarcate the median line. He stakes his painting stance with ground spikes. He marks the visual center of individual leaves and fruits to retain their compositional balance. For two brief hours each morning, the sun reflects from the roof and casts a majestic light against the upper portion of the quince tree, leaving the rest of the tree in shadow, and it is this phenomenon that Lopez attempts to capture in his painting. As Lopez struggles to preserve this wondrous moment, the process of life continues unhindered through changing climate, inclement weather, distracting building renovations, news of significant international events, and interruptive visits from friends and relatives.

Victor Erice captures a sublime and infinitely fascinating portrait of art, inspiration, and the creative process in The Quince Tree Sun. Similar to the feature films of Abbas Kiarostami, Erice interweaves reality and fiction using a cast of nonprofessional actors in order to distill the fictionalized account of the artist's life and reveal the emotional honesty of the creative spirit. Using the simple narrative style of documentary filmmaking, mundane conversations, and personal introspection, Erice presents a vision devoid of artifice or pretense. What emerges is an understated observation of the inevitable passage of time, and the irrepressible longing of the soul to capture an elusive moment of nature's fleeting beauty.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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