Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice is not that his debut feature film, 1973’s The Spirit Of The Beehive (El Espíritu De La Colmena) is a great piece of cinema- far better than anything by Luis Buñuel, but that it is only one of three feature films he has made in his career, and only one of two fiction films, thus giving him the honor of being the lone major filmmaker who is in a position to call American film titan Terence Malick ‘prolific.’ That stated, The Spirit Of The Beehive is a masterful film that deals with the inner lives of children, and is the only major film I have ever seen that does so in such a great fashion. The only two other films that come close are both B films, 1969’s Godzilla's Revenge and 1944’s The Curse Of The Cat People, but both of those films immerse themselves in the points of view of their protagonists while Erice’s film takes a scientifically detached look from an objective viewpoint, for the vast bulk of the film.
Many critics crib each other’s claims that the film is a political allegory, but such declamations do not give proper credit to this masterful work, which is infinitely more existential than political, and shares far greater DNA with Valerio Zurlini’s 1976 masterpiece, The Desert Of The Tartars. Also, such simplistic notions disrespect and diminish such art. The film opens on a 1940 Castilian plain, and follows the lives of the two daughters of a well off bourgeoisie landowner, just after the victory of the fascist Nationalist forces against the socialist Republican forces. Their father (Fernando Fernán Gómez - and all the major characters in the film bear the names of their portrayers) spends his time obsessed with his beekeeping, while their mother (Teresa Gimpera) idles in fantasies of a presumed younger lover.
The first scenes show the arrival of the 1931 James Whale film Frankenstein for a screening, and all the villagers and children are enthralled by its showing, which has been dubbed into Spanish. This includes the two girls, 7-8 year old Isabel (Isabel Tellería) and 5-6 year old Ana (Ana Torrent). Most critics rave on about Torrent’s performance, and it is justifiably good, but hers is the quiet, sympathetic sister, and her character has far less ‘real’ acting to do in the film than does Telleria’s more nuanced and complex older sister, and why her performance, which is as good, or better, than Torrent’s, in a much harder role, has been overlooked is an oddity. Early on, we see the famed scene from Frankenstein, wherein the monster comes upon the village girl playing with flowers, tossing petals into the lake, but before we see the scene where the monster accidentally drowns the girl, we cut away, and then we see Ana ask Isabel why the monster killed her, and why the townsfolk then killed him. Isabel tells Ana she’ll tell her later, and, that night, she explains that movies are not real, and that no one in the film really died. Isabel then begins one of several seductive lies in the film, and speaks of knowing a local spirit- a claim that, along with the film, lead Ana to her later depraved mental condition. Isabel’s arc in the film is far more complex than Ana’s, for we see her in almost a demonic fit, when she tries to choke the family cat- thankfully, unlike the female child in Béla Tarr’s Satantango, she does not kill the animal. But we also see her as a fun loving guide and de facto heroine to Ana, and a scene of joy, as the two sisters jump around on their beds, perfectly portrays this.
Ana’s mental declension begins when, in another very Béla Tarr-like scene, Isabel leads her sister to an abandoned building on a windy plain, where they are fascinated by a stagnant well, and Ana spies a large footprint that, wordlessly, the viewer knows has her thinking is from Frankenstein’s monster, as Isabel has told her she has seen the monster. Another key moment in the film comes when Ana hears Isabel screaming, runs to her, and finds her sister lying passed out on the floor. The viewer knows she is not dead, as the young actress’s chest is clearly respiring, but this had to be intended by Erice, as the important question posed is not what will Ana do about her sister but why is Isabel scaring her sister. As the scene plays out we get far more insight into Isabel than Ana. Later in the film, that same building with the well becomes a place where a republican soldier holes up, after jumping off a train. He becomes Ana’s own Frankenstein’s monster, but, after Ana helps him, he is shot dead by the Fascists, and the things Ana stole to give to him are linked back to her father, who figures out what his youngest daughter did, and follows her to the abandoned building, where she runs from him, after finding the republican’s blood all over the place. She is lost, and her family and neighbors search for her in the night. Ana sees a poisonous mushroom, and, cuing from an important earlier scene with her father and sister, where they hike and learn of a myth of perfect mushrooms on an unattainable mountainside, which spurs Ana’s transcendent urge, she opines on whether to eat it or not. Later, at a river, she imagines she sees Frankenstein’s monster approach her, as in the film, but, just as the film cuts away from the interior film’s violence, so does the presumed violence here relent. This is one of the most effective and horrific scenes in film because, for a moment, the viewer is uncertain whether he has privilege to the child’s mind, or whether or not Isabel’s fanciful tale is an entrée to Magical Realism of the most grisly sort. She is found in the morning, and goes mute. A doctor says she is physically fine, but it will take time for her to overcome the mental trauma she has endured. The film ends with Ana going to her window and calling for her spirit, the monster, and waiting for a reply.
As mentioned, political symbolism plagues and drowns almost all serious cinematic appraisals of the film for the monster is often seen as a symbol of the Spanish Republic (Franco-Frankenstein, get it?), since the republican soldier becomes its stand in for Ana’s idée fixee of the monster, but, if so, then one must conclude that Erice is rather ham-handed in his art. Far more important is the monster as incarnation of the world apart and beyond the mundanity of her existence that Ana already sees. Throughout the film Ana seeks transcendence and the monster is just that. The monster, in fact, is Ana’s image of herself transcended from her childhood (and this is apparent long before we see the monster’s reflection in the water, as it resolves itself from Ana’s), and her questions to her sister about it are because she fears what being ‘different’ from others will do to her, as she sees how the monster suffers, for Ana has the possibility of real creativity, or, at least, real depth beyond the average person, yet this urge, this daemon, is being suppressed by herself, her sister’s psychological games, her parental structure, and life in her village. Ana seeks to get away or rise above but she needs the spur of Isabel’s mischief to have the impetus.
The 98 minute long film, shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, is beautifully filmed, and Erice and cinematographer Luis Cuadrado make sublime use of magic hour sepia infused lighting. The subtitling is in borderless white, but, given this film’s overt lack of key dialogue, it’s a shame that the film is not dubbed into English, so that its images are not stained with words. The screenplay was written by Erice, Ángel Fernández Santos, and Francisco J. Querejeta, based upon a story idea by Erice and Santos. The scoring, by Luis de Pablo, is spare, but effective.
The Spirit Of The Beehive is an excellent and realistic portrait of childhood, with less Malickian mysticism and more realism; in that the ‘realism’ of a child is a different mysticism than 'adult' mysticism; or perhaps enchantment is a better term. That term also explains Ana’s ideals about life, and why she stares at her father’s glass beehive relentlessly, for she sees an order in it that is absent in her existence. This metaphor is far more cogent and powerful than the facile political connotations impugned. In fact, one can even argue that Ana’s ordered home (replete with honeycomb shaped windows) and home life are manifestations of the beehive she loves, and, just as we view her with intent, so does she view and imbue the bees’ lives. The outside world- politicized or not, by comparison, is no beehive, and things need to be ordered, by force, or by suppression- the elision of the drowning scene in Frankenstein is a good illustration of this for the diegesis of the film is her perspective, and she would likely close her eyes to that scene anyway, which is why the actual film also elides the dream sequence of Ana and the monster, as its hands seem to move to grab her.
Watching films from certain periods in one’s life, for the first time, is an odd experience, for often it is as if one is backfilling one’s own past, altering it subtly as if one had experienced the recent past as a decades’ old memory, as if it had been there all along. Throughout Erice’s film, I had images and emotions of what my own existence in 1973, the year of the The Spirit Of The Beehive’s release, was but, alack, in real life, I am an Isabel, not an Ana, thus I can discern the real from the irreal. On the positive side, when I state that Victor Erice’s debut film is a cinema masterpiece and classic, you can rest assured that it. Really.