Victor Erice directed only three films in his career, yet managed to debut with what is considered one of Spain’s greatest cinematic achievements: 1973’s Spirit of the Beehive. It’s a masterpiece that has influenced cinema indelibly through Erice’s empathetic regard for his principle characters and a quiet solemnity unmatched by his contemporaries.
Of Erice’s handful of films, two—Spirit and El Sur—featured children as their protagonists. For Erice, this choice of child protagonists was neither incidental nor a consequence of the plot. Instead, it was driven by his need to explore one of his favorite themes to revisit—the child’s guileless discovery of a world that is both new and hauntingly tethered to the past. Childhood is so often marked by long periods of repetition and boredom. As adults, we work tirelessly to edit any instances of boredom from the story of our lives, and defend against the repetition of daily life. As Erice shows in Spirit of the Beehive, children are still gifted with both unfettered imaginations and generous gaps of understanding that allow them to mentally elide the harsh realities, inexplicable relationships, and the obscurity of a world that predates their arrival in it.
In Spirit of the Beehive, these circumstances certainly surround our protagonist, but do not define her. For Ana and her older sister Isabel, their world is vast, desolate and removed from the larger world. The Castilian plain is the starkly beautiful canvas upon which their fantastic imaginings are written. It is 1940 and Franco’s fascist regime has just taken power after the costly and bloody Spanish Civil War. Despite this, the tiny village in which they and a few dozen others live appears disconnected from Franco’s authoritarian monstrosity, retaining an unfeigned naturalism that recalls Ermanno Olmi’s Tree of Wooden Clogs. This isn’t coincidental. Like Olmi’s faithful paean to authenticity, Spirit of the Beehive was filmed in a real Castilian village with a number of real residents as actors and extras.
While the environment is one of endless vistas that stretch into the distance, Erice is more concerned with the intimate relationships that play against this panorama. Despite outward stoicism, it’s evident the fragile structure of Ana’s family has been irrevocably damaged by the Civil War. Neither the girls’ father, Fernando, nor mother, Teresa, shares a frame for the entirety of the film; even during breakfast with the children they are separated. Erice shows us, through literal framing, that the two lead metaphorically separate lives. To further illustrate this, the home displays none of the usual familial warmth; its empty and austere halls and decayed facade echo the bleak sterility of the parent’s marriage. Teresa tends to her own longing and desperation, writing letters to a former lover expressing the devotion and passion she doesn’t possess for Fernando. We are only privy to scant details of her relationship with this mysterious soldier. We feel complicit in her deception as we watch her somber ritual of riding her bike to the train depot to deliver her letters. Meanwhile, Fernando leads a life of solitary detachment, fascinated by the natural world, pacing the floor well into the evening in contemplation. Where Teresa displays moments of maternal warmth for the children, Fernando’s paternalism is more pragmatic. A beekeeper, he pays assiduous attention to the bees in ways he does not to his children, intently recording their behaviors. It’s here we briefly enter his inner world, too, as we are treated to lingering and loving shots of the hive, a bustling counterpoint to the girls’ spare and quiet home. In his journal, Fernando notes the bees’ hurried activity, while questioning their purpose; he writes of an “indescribable sadness and horror” upon contemplating the implications of this. The regimented and tightly ordered society enforced by Franco on Spain is mirrored in the hexagonal hives of the bees and again in a motif repeated on windows in the family home. Each member of the household is largely isolated within the structure of the family unit.
But the film’s focus—and the children—are not confined solely to the home. Ana’s curiosity is awakened when a visiting projectionist shows James Whale’s Frankenstein in the village’s makeshift theater. Here, as Frankenstein’s monster unwittingly drowns a little girl, Ana is determined to discern why the monster would do such a thing, and to know if the little girl is really dead. The significance of this moment extends beyond the proscenium of the film; Erice’s camera captures the real reaction of the little actress (Ana Torrent) upon seeing Whale’s masterpiece for the first time. Her innocently captivated expression is genuine. This moment of dissipated separation between reality and fantasy is emblematic of the ghostly, mystical journey Ana will take in the film—one that pairs her imagination with her burgeoning understanding of mortality. Her mischievous sister explains to Ana that the monster in the film is actually a spirit that can be summoned if Ana calls upon him. She trusts her older sister, who nonetheless repeatedly takes advantage of Ana’s gullibility. Isabel has a greater understanding of the world, but one that is cynical and without any of the wonder Ana possesses. At one point, while tormenting her cat, it retaliates, biting Isabel’s finger and drawing blood. Isabel spreads the blood across her lips, suggesting an incipient awareness of her sexuality and of her looming adulthood.
In contrast, Erice is conscious in depicting that Ana’s youth is still a powerful tether to her imagination to the extent that, when they explore a nearby abandoned building, Ana becomes convinced it is the spirit’s domicile. When an escaped and injured Republican soldier takes shelter in the deteriorating house, Ana befriends him, supposing he is the spirit she is seeking. When he is killed by Franco’s soldiers, their potentially disastrous connection, prompted by her father’s watch being found on the dead soldier’s person, is made evident. Ana, having found a paternal connection with the doomed soldier that she so obviously lacks with her own father, is aghast at his disappearance. Her own personal journey of discovery is triggered by her father’s rebuke of their connection, one solidified by his own timepiece. Its chime in the hands of the doomed soldier fortifies her own desire for a paternal figure, a nuance lost to her distant, if well-meaning, father.
Spirit of the Beehive refuses to condescend to its principal characters. It champions the ability of children to make sense of a world their adult “betters” presume to describe to them. Ana’s journey, one that is fraught with danger, speaks to a wisdom they possess that adults have forgotten. The adults in her world, so captivated by their own troubled existences, have forgotten what power lies in the world of imagination and hope. Perhaps if we acknowledge the capability of children to persevere despite difficult circumstances, we are not observing aplomb born of naïveté, but durability inspired by dreams.
Featured Image: Vídeo Mercury Films