Victor Erice’s first film is a masterpiece – an honour that can be bestowed on very few arthouse denizens.
Few movies have captured the inner life of a child as does The Spirit of the Beehive, few have extracted such sensitive performances from knee-high actors, and few evade easy summarisation. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) is as much an allegory about Francisco Franco’s military dictatorship that ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975 as it is a a psychological drama about a seven-year-old girl’s encounters with irrationality and possession. The movie is set in 1940, at the onset of Franco’s long rule over Spain, but the greatest event of significance in its universe has to do with cinema itself – the screening of the 1931 production Frankenstein in the village in which young Ana (Ana Torrent) lives with her parents and older sister, Isabel.
Ana might not understand what she is watching, and Isabel’s explanations are inadequate. Ana is transfixed by one scene: a little girl, about as old as her, meets Frankenstein and welcomes him with the innocence and openness typical of children and puppies. Ana is less horrified by the monster’s face as she is intrigued by the girl’s reaction to him. Isabel is flippant in the way that older sisters can be – it’s all make-believe, she scoffs, and besides, Frankenstein has actually moved into an abandoned shed near their sprawling villa, and can be summoned at will.
Even as Ana is irresistibly drawn to this Boo Radley-like phantom, the rest of the household goes about its business. The family is barely hanging together. Ana’s elderly father Fernando pores over his bees, the mother, Terese, writes letters to her lover, and the children are left to their own devices.
Nothing is elaborated in a movie governed by immense silences that mirror the retreat of democracy and free expression in Franco’s Spain. The functional conversations do little to explain the mystery of what is being witnessed. How much of the events are playing inside Ana’s head, and why does her villa have a window frame that resembles a beehive?
Erice’s elliptical narrative is stunningly brought to life by cinematographer Luís Cuadrado (who was famously losing his sight during filming). Every frame is precise in a movie that embraces elision. Apart from lining up a series of arresting close-ups, especially of Ana’s unforgettable visage, Cuadrado composes long shots that capture the gorgeous ochres and browns of the countryside. He is especially fond of framing the girls against the empty landscape.
As Ana’s imagination takes flight, every minor event becomes pregnant with possibility and anxiety – a steam train thunders by, mushrooms in the woods carry the stench of death, an adorable black cat becomes a portent. In a sequence involving the cat, Isabel pushes the boundaries of her understanding of violence when she nearly squeezes the poor thing to death – and then applies the blood that the feline’s claws have produced on her lips in a moment of daring experimentation.
Erice keeps dialogue to the minimum. A few looks at a breakfast table (the only scene in which the family is seen together) are all it takes for Fernando to realise that Ana has been helping a rebel soldier. Ana’s changed attitude to Isabel after a particularly scary prank is communicated through her large, trusting eyes, which are ready to be swallowed up by whatever is coming her way.
“What do you see in the darkness that makes you tremble?” A question posed by a book that is read out in Ana’s classroom resonates through this ultimately spooky evocation of a childhood set against a backdrop of authoritarianism.
Erice’s filmography barely fills a page. His only other full-length feature is El Sur (The South). Like The Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur (1983) draws on childhood memories and imagination. Estrelle, the young girl in El Sur who looks back on her fond relationship with her father, might well be a grown-up version of Isabel from The Spirit of the Beehive. As her adult self recounts her experiences of growing up far away from the southern Spain of her father’s early years, Estrelle powerfully demonstrates the power exerted by what we remember and choose to remember. El Sur is more loosely structured and intimate than The Spirit of the Beehive, and it elegantly recreates a way of life and manners that have since disappeared.
Erice has also directed The Quince Tree Sun (1992), a documentary about the painter Antonio Lopez Garcia, and contributed to a few anthology films, including Centro Historico (2012), a set of four shorts on Guimarães in Portugal. Erice’s contribution is a short documentary on a defunct textile factory. Reminiscent of Jia Zhagke’s 24 City (2008), the film comprises interviews with workers. Here again are the themes of the persistence of memory and the evocation of a bittersweet past.
A longstanding lament about Erice is that he hasn’t made enough cinema, but if The Spirit of the Beehive is anything to go by, he is living proof of the universal truth that quality trumps quantity every time.