Mesmerizing is the word- Victor Erice’s first directorial venture, turned out to be the chef-d’oeuvre of the Spanish cinema. This movie was made in 1973, just during the last days of General Franco’s forty-year dictatorship. ‘The Spirit of the Beehive ‘explores the child’s experience in a bleak village just after the civil war, have had troubled afterlives.
Victor Erice won the critical reception of his work both inside Spain and internationally has been almost unanimously enthusiastic with ‘The spirit of beehive’ and many hailing his contributions could have been better to cinema as he made fewer films in his career.
The film depicts the year of 1940. Ana (Ana Torrent), a shy girl who is six year old, lives in the manor house in an isolated Spanish village on the Castilian plateau with her parents Fernando and Teresa and her older sister, Isabel (Isabel Telleria). Those are the times of civil war, in his fag end with the Francoist claim victory over the Republican forces. The film illustrate that her aging father spend his time engrossed in the study and writing about his beehives. Ana’s mother (Teresa Gimpera), who is much younger to her father is caught up in daydreams about a distant lover, languishing from the isolation of the remote town and her husband’s alienated affection, occupies her time by writing longing, heartfelt letters to loved ones left behind during the war. The entire family looks dysfunctional as the total unit. This movie never shows their family in a single shot. Ana’s closest companion is Isabel, who loves her but cannot resist playing on her little sister’s gullibility.
Ana’s mother in a mode of her love letter, hands over in the railway station, where a commuter train makes a brief stop, collects the mail, and sets out to its final destination. The children Isabel & Ana left alone to occupy themselves in their mother’s absence attend the screening of Frankenstein at a makeshift movie theater in town. The enigmatic plot begins with two children as they get obsessed with a spirit who her sister claims lives nearby, the younger Ana, unsettled by the inexplicable acts of the monster and the residents of that town, insistently asks Isabel to rationalize their actions. Isabel pacifies Ana by explaining that the monster is actually a spirit who cannot die, and takes the gullible Ana to an abandoned barn where she claims to see the spirit in the well. Intrigued by the prospect of finding the elusive spirit, Ana becomes obsessed with the idea of befriending the imaginary monster.
In a mode the story salvages Ana’s fascination with the spirit increases when Isabel takes her to a desolate abandoned sheepfold, which she claims is the monster’s house. Ana returns alone many times to look for him but finds only a large footprint. One day, Isabel screams from a distant part of the house, and when Ana comes to investigate, she lies perfectly still on the floor, pretending to be dead. That night, Ana sneaks out and while looking at the night sky, closes her eyes. In the next scene, a fugitive republican soldier leaps from a passing train and limps to the sheepfold to hide.
Ana finds the soldier hiding in the sheepfold. Instead of running away in terror, she feeds him and even brings him her father’s coat and watch. This odd, wordless friendship ends abruptly when the Francoist police come in the night, find the republican soldier and shoot him. The police soon connect Ana’s father with the fugitive and assume he stole the items from him. The father discovers which of the daughters had helped the fugitive by noticing Ana’s reaction when he produces the pocket watch she had given to him. When Ana next goes to visit him, she finds him gone and fresh blood on the ground. Her father confronts her as she gazes at the blood, and she runs away.
While she is wandering in the woods alone that night, she finds a poisonous mushroom her father previously said will kill anyone who eats it. It is not clear if she does so but she later has a vision of the monster; he gazes sadly at her, as in the 1931 film, and kneels beside her as she looks down into water. We see Teresa read a letter she wrote to the man who lives in Nice, France, and burning it unsent, implying the love affair is over or that she will stop communicating with him.
A search party finds Ana physically unharmed the next morning, but she withdraws from her family, refusing to speak or eat. The doctor assures her mother that she will gradually forget the shock she’s just experienced. Teresa is shown caring for Fernando after he falls asleep at his desk. At the end of the film, Ana recalls what Isabel said about calling the monster, and she stands alone by her bedroom window and closes her eyes.
Erice recounts that children easily get traumatized if they are not steered with affection by their parents and one such trigger is the movie she watches, and deeply gets involved with the character. The director conjures up a dream-like world where the troubled adults appear to have withdrawn into their own private universes (the father with his studying of bees, the mother with her letter-writing). This is shot in gentle and subdued colors, the camera plays mesmerizing games with shadow and light, the director places atmosphere over plot and ingeniously conveys the mysteriousness of everyday life from a child’s perspective.
The script is curt, as many of the sequences are entirely silent, each of the characters are shown separately. The hushed room of her mother writing letter to her unknown man, father in his own domain of his research, and the each of these sequence moves discrete one after another and still looms the story which forms existential isolation. The house is so well portrayed in the unknown location; very authentic to its locale is perhaps the most important character in the film. The other details are considered so dear with the weathered stone facade, its large entrance crowned by a timeworn coat of arms, suggests an ancestral home, dark furniture is perfected by melancholic painting, girls’ bedroom with the picture of an angel leads a child by the hand, Fernando’s study room with a skull placed prominently on his desk. The honey-colored light that streams through the windows, glazed with hexagonal panes, is menacing than it first seems. It evokes the beehive of the title, which Fernando tells us is a society of feverish, senseless activity, one that has no tolerance for disease or death. The cinematography by Luis Cuadrado is very tradition of Spanish art is very ethnic. It’s so authentic, not just in those lights and shadows, but in every frame painted in the movie.
‘The Spirit of the Beehive ‘is a much watch. It shows the genius of Erice. As we know, he made only three feature in his career spanning thirty years. But while his oeuvre may be slight, and his quality of film making is something Spanish films will ever cherish….. It’s evident that he said once that his movies are made “against time, to escape time.” Viva Victor Erice.
- Written, Screenplay & Directed by Víctor Erice
- Produced by Elías Querejeta
- Additional Screenplay by Ángel Fernández Santos & Francisco J. Querejeta
- Cast: Fernando Fernán Gómez; Teresa Gimpera; Ana Torrent; Isabel Tellería
- Music by Luis de Pablo
- Cinematography Luis Cuadrado
- Distributed by Bocaccio Distribución
- Release date: 8 October 1973 (Spain)
- Run time of 97 minutes
- Country: Spain
- Language: Spanish