The Spirit of the Beehive, Víctor Erice’s first feature, an atmospheric exploration of a child’s experience in a bleak village just after the civil war, was released in 1973, in the dying days of General Franco’s forty-year dictatorship, and soon established itself as the consummate masterpiece of Spanish cinema.
Unique about The Spirit of the Beehive is its reference to the horror genre. The enigmatic plot begins with two children, Ana and her sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería), watching James Whale’s Frankenstein in an improvised cinema in the village of Hoyuelos (like the actors, the location keeps its real name in the film). Obsessed with a spirit who her sister claims lives nearby, Ana will set out one night to meet him, with near tragic consequences. Erice recently recounted that when the child actress confronted his re-creation of Frankenstein’s monster on set, she was as deeply disturbed as her character is in the film.
Erice and coscreenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos (later a distinguished film critic) based the script on their own memories, re-creating school anatomy lessons, the discovery of poisonous mushrooms, and the ghoulish games of childhood. It is no accident that the film is set in 1940, the year of Erice’s own birth.
The village may be a playground for heedless children, but its unpaved streets and ruinous buildings are scarred by conflict and deprivation. The father, Fernando, listens in secret to a shortwave radio (surely it is to the BBC, forbidden by the regime), while his wife, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), writes letters to an absent loved one (an envelope is addressed to a Red Cross camp in France, where Spanish refugees were interned). The character known only as “the fugitive,” whom Ana visits in an abandoned barn, is presumably a member of the maquis, or anti-Francoist resistance. More generally, the insistent melancholia, approaching catatonia, of the household marks it out as one inhabited by members of the losing side in the war. As the innocent Ana leafs through the family photo album, we glimpse her father in a snapshot with Miguel de Unamuno, the famous intellectual who was a brave critic of Franco’s rebellion.
Erice conveys all this with great economy and reticence. The script is laconic (many of the best sequences are entirely silent), and the shooting style says it all. Each member of the family is introduced separately, in a different location: the spartan cinema, the teeming beehive, the hushed room, reminiscent of Vermeer, where Teresa writes her letter to an unknown man. Not once in the film’s ninety-nine minutes do they share the same frame. Typically, in the one sequence when all four are together, a family breakfast, Erice films each of them on their own.
Because Erice rarely gives us an establishing shot to set up the action in such scenes, we feel as lost and disoriented as his child protagonist. Framing, too, is used to suggest existential isolation. In one moving sequence, when Fernando joins his wife in bed, she feigns sleep. Erice trains his camera on her watchful, fearful face, while her husband is reduced to indistinct offscreen noise and murky shadows cast on the bedroom wall.