The Beekeeper (O melissokomos)

Greece (1986) Dir. Theodoros Angelopoulos

Getting old – non-one wants it to happen but when it does a number of harsh realities hit us. The question is, how do you react to them? Do you cling on to the past and wallow in nostalgia, or do you simply accept it as another stage on life’s journey? Or worse still, do you do nothing?

Spyros (Marcello Mastroianni) is a retired schoolteacher from a lineage of beekeepers, making his apiary a main priority although it serves more as an excuse to escape than a true passion. With winter turning into spring, Spyros needs to find the best place for his bees to produce honey and sets out on his annual road trip across Greece.

At a motorway rest stop, a young woman stranded there (Nadia Mourouzi) hops into Spyros’ truck and as to be dropped off anywhere. She appears at Spyros’ next stop too so he lets her tag along, but the clash of their generational attitudes and simmering tension as they both becomes quietly reliant on the other has a profound but confusing effect on Spyros.

The Beekeeper is part of a trilogy from noted Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos, a name I am not familiar with but given the high praise he receives from reviewers on IMDb, it didn’t take me long to realise that he is an arthouse favourite rather a well kept secret of cinema. Luckily, one doesn’t need to see the other two films as this is an apparent thematic trilogy and not one linked by a continuous storyline.

In keeping with the subtle, unspoken nature of arty cinema, Angelopoulos doesn’t lay his ideas bare for the audience even if the central storyline is rather straightforward. The behaviour of the two principals is heavy on ambiguity to the point of frustration, the cavil being that ultimately there is little to like about either of them. It is as if they know what is going on in their own heads but don’t bother sharing it with anyone else.

But, as I have confessed many times in the past, it might just be that I am too dense to pick up on what Angelopoulos is trying to say with these characters. Spyros certainly is not an easy man to read yet compared to the girl (she is never given a name) he is as transparent as tracing paper; she is the embodiment of youthful caprice and selfishness and the more annoying of the two

Spyros has a dark past that isn’t revealed but tacitly suggested by the frosty reception he receives from his family at this daughter’s wedding at the start of the film. The physical interaction between father and daughter is awkward at best while his son’s body language is unable to disguise any contempt he may hold. Anna (Jenny Roussea), Spyros’ ex-wife, remains civil towards him for the sake of public harmony but the discord is palpable.

Never once smiling throughout the film, it becomes evident rather quickly that Spyros is a lonely man, resigned to his fate of beekeeping and creeping ever closer to the grave as the world passes him by. Seeing his daughter move on with her new life as he remains stultified is the first trigger for Spyros to wonder where his life is going, and has gone, the second being the arrival of the girl.

It is interesting to note that despite being a teacher for many years and one of some repute it would appear, none of this is revealed when dealing with the girl. One would think that a career in nurturing young minds and being an empathetic guardian to them would surface again with his flighty passenger in tow but it isn’t so, not even through force of habit.

Maybe this is because she represents the vitality of youth now out of reach to Spyros yet with her being in such close proximity and exuding a flirtatious aura, there might just be an opportunity to reopen that particular avenue of pleasure for Spyros. But that would be gross, right? Well, love and lust don’t always follow the same rules but do share an unpredictability about how they affect a person.

We shouldn’t be too hard on Spyros as the girl does (almost literally) shove it in his face one night when she brings a young discharged soldier back to their motel room and has noisy sex with him while Spyros is in the next bed! It is not difficult to read this as an act of deliberate mischief and provocation on the girl’s part, especially as she ends up back with Spyros not long after before awkwardly running off again when he confesses he missed her.

As midlife crisis tales go, this is an oblique one for slow folk like me to understand the nuances of but isn’t any less effective in capturing the melancholy and elegiac sense of finality that accompanies old age. The early year setting offers us the rare chance of seeing Greece in the winter, the usual blazing radiance of the sun soaked vistas replaced by the dour, grey hues of the cloudy skies.

Known for being THE leading man of Italian cinema during its post war boom period, Marcello Mastroianni looks nothing like his former matinee idol self here, resembling a depressed Max Linder instead. Yet his performance as Spyros in nonetheless masterly in conveying the brooding contemplation of emotional isolation and itinerant aimlessness, his grizzled earthiness aptly juxtaposed against the peccante frivolity of Nadia Mourouzi’s equally unfulfilled girl.

Films that make the audience work to understand them always incur a varied success rate dependant on the viewer, thus The Beekeeper hasn’t convinced this writer it is the masterpiece many others feel it is. I enjoyed it for what it was, appreciate the story told, the bold yet unfussy presentation and the performances but for me, it was another arthouse film that was a little out of my reach regarding that all important connection.