A Thousand-Year-Old Bee/The Millennial Bee
English Title: A Thousand-Year-Old Bee/The Millennial Bee
Original Title: Tisícročná včela
Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia
Studio: Beta Film, Československá Televízia Bratislava (CST), Slovenská filmová tvorba Koliba (SFT)
Director: Juraj Jakubisko
Producer(s): Andrej Lettrich
Screenplay: Juraj Jakubisko
Cinematographer: Stanislav Doršič
Runtime: 162 minutes
Volume: East European
The symbolism of the honeybee as an embodiment of the thousand-year history of the Slovaks (not ‘millennial’ as the mistranslated English title says) is the defining metaphor of Juraj Jakubisko’s A Thousand-Year-Old Bee (1983): a haunting, dreamlike national allegory. Its characteristics – hard-working slave deprived of the fruit of its collective labour and ready to sting as a last resort – is stressed in the central family’s surname being derived from ‘sting’ (but also relatable to colloquial expressions for both hard work and copulation, procreation). It is also present in the lovemaking and comedic scenes where bees figure as part of the story; in the protagonist Martin Pichanda, who works as a beekeeper and who repeatedly ponders the transcendental truth of his hives; and most overtly in the delivery of these philosophical pontifications by a gigantic queen bee in sporadic, hallucinatory sequences in which she talks of the destiny of the Slovaks and draws parallels between the nation and the bees.
A Thousand-Year-Old Bee is Juraj Jakubisko’s only film that blends his previous artistic, esoteric approach to cinema with a successful appeal to a commercial audience. The director is less interested in mythologizing the physical aspects of his country – there are few panoramic shots of or pans around the countryside; and indeed much of the potential of the rural landscape and its climate is not entertained at all – than he is on capturing its turbulent national history. In this it offered a social tapestry that was unprecedented in Slovak cinema, and indeed remains unsurpassed to this day; one that flatters the nation to the extent that Jakubisko downplays its agency in anything detrimental within its history, and instead depicts a national identity that supports, even facilitates, much that was good in people’s lives.
The screenwriter and author of the source novel of A Thousand-Year-Old Bee was a Communist Party member, and Jakubisko had previously been banned from film-making following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As such, certain aspects of the film offer a tribute to communism against the corrupting exegeses of bourgeois capitalism. Most overtly, the film represents the character of Valent as the only wealthy (i.e. ‘capitalist’) entrepreneur among the multitude of characters. He remains selfish, subservient to the bourgeois authorities and a perennial cheat, and remains distinct from the finale in which the deceased and the living join together in a whirling dance replete with red flags – a foretelling of an idealized communist future.
Despite a complex story, bewildering number of characters, and numerous surreal touches reminiscent of Jakubisko’s earlier films (for example a card game inside a whale, and a shower of frogs fifteen years before Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia ), the allegory of A Thousand-Year-Old Bee was executed with such self-explanatory power and provided such a comforting myth of Slovak national history that it achieved unprecedented success within Czechoslovakia. Its ticket sales in Slovakia far outstripped any other Czechoslovak film in 1983, and it became the fifth highest grossing picture in Slovakia of all the Czechoslovak films made during in the last two decades of communism. Moreover, in a poll of Slovak and Czech film critics and academics taken over a decade after its release, it still ranked in the top five Slovak and top 25 Czechoslovak films ever made. As recently as 2002 the Slovaks still ranked Jakubisko’s film as their favourite domestic production ever, praise indeed for a magic-realist fable and exploration of the vagaries of myth, history and identity.
Author of this review: Martin Votruba