La Colmena (1982)
Director: Mario Camus
Cast: Victoria Abril, Ana Belén, Concha Velasco
Plot: As in the novel of the same title from Camilo Jose Cela, "La Colmena" is a sad composition with the stories of many people in the Madrid of 1942, just the postwar of the Spanish Civil War.
Awards: Won Golden Bear (Berlin).
Rating: NC16 for some sexual content.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
This film feels very rarely seen, almost unheard of. That is surprising because it won the Golden Berlin Bear. Yet it doesn't come up frequently in discussion on Spanish cinema. Perhaps it has been overshadowed by another Spanish film made nine years earlier, Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) which shares a similar word in its title.
'Colmena' means hive, and the 1982 picture La Colmena literally means 'The Beehive', adapted for the screen from Camino Jose Cela's novel of the same name, one of the most critical texts of Spanish literature that wasn’t published in Spain because of strict censorship rules.
La Colmena is an evocation of the past, set after the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s. It centers on a seemingly random collection of characters in a casual dining place run by a strict woman. There are poets, writers, lonely women, lonely men, rich and poor people, and a man who really needs to stop smoking. They drink and talk, sometimes out of intellectual pursuit, sometimes out of boredom.
It is like a beehive, bustling and busy. Yet it is also a beehive because the many bees in this excellent drama contribute to director Mario Camus' vision of a self-contained narrative of a troubled past. It is a film in which the sum is greater than its parts.
Made post-Franco, La Colmena is a unique examination of the social conditions and consequences during the early years of the Franco regime. It doesn’t overtly show poverty, struggle and oppression, but through the film’s colourful characters and their conversations with each other, we can feel that they are living in a time and space that is characterized by a lack of many kinds of freedoms.
There is a constant dialectic between the poor poets who try to lead honest lives, and the rich businessmen who succeed through illegal means. Sometimes darkly comic, La Colmena is rich in dialogue and characterizations. It may not be a breakthrough work in any way, but it leaves some sort of strange impression that is enough to allow me to get a sense of history through its periodization.
Camus would eventually direct The Holy Innocents (1984), which won a couple of awards at Cannes, and still his most well-known work to date. You are encouraged to check out La Colmena if you can find a good copy.
Verdict: A post-Franco film set after the Spanish Civil War that is an evocative and intriguing examination of social conditions and consequences through a myriad of rich, interesting characters.
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