The Beekeeper, released cinematically in 1986, is a ponderously slow but beautifully realised film about ageing, loss and the generation gap that exists in modern Greece. The film’s stoic and moustachioed centre is Spyros (Marcello Mastroianni), a constrained and physically hunched character whose patience is tested to the limits by a nameless and annoying, but ultimately endearing, young female hitch-hiker (Nadia Mourouzi), whom he picks up more by accident than by design after the break-up of his marriage and his distancing from the family unit.
The film opens with what is possibly cinema’s most dour and depressing wedding scene, and the grey bleakness never lets up. Even the occasional moments of brevity – Spyros drinking with friends on the beach, or tending to his bees – are laced with a strange and tense yearning. Added to this is a layer of unfulfilled sexual charge that lies just under the surface of every scene that Spyro spends with the hitch-hiker – this is best exemplified in his efforts to try and stay platonic in his relationship with her while at the same time poring over every inch of her body and storming out, possibly in jealousy, when the hitch-hiker brings a lover home and taunts him by staring at him through their passionless lovemaking.
This is a theatrical film and is clearly not intended to depict real life. It is a film made up of images and themes that are represented through archetypes – the solemn older man, the young and vivacious hitch-hiker, the alpha male soldier – all of these characters are used by Angelopous to dwell on the themes of ageing and separation. The scene just after the wedding in which Spyro picks up his newly-married daughter and sings her a lullaby couldn’t, and wouldn’t, happen in real life. In the context of the film the scene is needed to show that Spyro struggles with living in the present and can’t (or won’t) escape his past – represented throughout the film by his shabby clothes and his old, worn-down beehives – and the scene works.
The Greece portrayed in the film is, like Spyros, barren and broken down. It is made up of cracked buildings and solitary trees growing from cobblestones and old and scruffy cars. It’s a country that was once great but is now struggling to keep up the charade, much like Spyro. The cracks that exist in Spyro only emerge occasionally, in explosions that appear from nowhere and dissipate quickly. The hitch-hiker’s taunting, daughterly platonic caresses are best demonstrated in a scene in which she kneels at his lap as he sits on the bed and she shaves his face, touching his cheek tenderly and staring deep into his eyes, seeming to push him to a sort of sexual breaking point that comes to fruition in a quite allegorical scene in a cinema much later on in the film.
In less subtle hands, this film would have been a very different, much darker story, but in Angelopous’ world of meandering greyness and unfulfilled passions, the pot is allowed to continue simmering into infinity. One scene that resonates particularly well is where Spyro finally expresses a need for his wife and seems to want to make everything up with her, but soon turns from a touching display into an unpleasant scene in which he loses control of his pent-up frustrations and, just for a few seconds, smothers her with kisses that we know, and it seems that she knows, are not actually intended for her.
Some viewers might baulk at slow, depressing Greek cinema, but for fans of beautiful images and uncomfortable, frustratingly uncommunicative characters, then The Beekeeper could be the perfect film. In it’s better moments, the film could pass for weak Tarkovsky. Overall it is a beautiful, but very serious, foreign film – with every cliché that particular movie stereotype brings with it; consider it the anti-My Big Fat Greek Wedding.