Directed by Victor Erice (1973)
The intense, wide-eyed imagination, some might even say gullibility, of children is on display in this incredibly-shot, mesmerizing Spanish masterpiece from 1973. “SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE” is everything quote-unquote “slow cinema” should be, a film that combines the sounds of nature, music and intense visuals – and of course, minimal dialogue – into something greater than the sum of its parts. It had been on my list for years to see, and now I’m ashamed it took this long. Director Victor Erice works slowly as well – he’s only made four features in total since this first one, averaging out at about one per decade. We’re about due for a new one in the next 3-4 years.
“SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE” is set just after the Spanish Civil War, and it’s clear in the film that its repercussions are still being felt in modest ways. Erice takes us from the macro to the micro very quickly, when a roving film truck rolls into a small village and shows the entire town, including its children, a print of the 1931 film “Frankenstein”. Impressionable and adorable sisters Ana and Isabel are among the assemblage, and later that night the two children talk in whispers about spirits, mushrooms and, eventually when Ana gets her nerve up, the monster in the film. Her “wise” older sister, from whom Ana believes everything, spins a tale of Frankenstein, or his “spirit”, being a real thing – something that she’s actually seen, and with which she communes on a regular basis. As the gears turn in Ana’s head, we can see an aura of mystery and foreboding forming.
The film moves at its own pace, though the plot is fairly easy to reckon with. Ana eventually finds a wounded solider in a remote barn, and in their inability to communicate (Ana is rendered mute by his presence), she comes to believe that he is the aforementioned spirit, or “phantasma”, and like the little girl in “Frankenstein”, immediately sets upon making him feel at ease. She brings him her father’s coat, some food and other trinkets. He happens to be a man running away from Franco's victorious Fascist regime, and the fact that her father’s pocket watch is among the items found in the barn once the man has left it is something that puts everyone in the film in some level of danger.
The cinematography highlights a village/rural Spain that’s of the earth, drenched in sunlight and yet slowly decaying from the passage of time. Shadow and light are deployed brilliantly. And whenever I see a child actor/actress as amazing as little Ana Torrent, who can make her big, expressive eyes appear to be taken in or absolutely deadened to the world around her, I’m amazed at how precocious some kids can be, and/or born to step in front of a camera. It’s a haunting, lovely film that I can imagine I’ll watch several times over before I shuffle off this mortal coil.