Set in a Castilian village in the years immediately following Franco’s victory and the end of the Spanish Civil War, Víctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973) evokes a landscape, flat and vast, creaking and autumnal, in which inhabitants appear to have been driven into hibernation. But in this protracted, quasi-fairy tale sleep begins a richer depth of dreaming. Like Ana (Ana Torrent), the remarkable, dark-eyed, five-year-old girl at the film’s centre, we’re able to explore this landscape, while the political tumult that has scarred it is never mentioned directly. Rather than being merely oblique, Erice shaped his debut film so as to be attuned to Ana’s way of seeing, while the impressions left in the wake of recent events—events that exhaust Ana’s limited understanding of the world—still exist to be read peripherally by the rest of us.
While phasing in and out of Ana’s perception, using both time-lapse dissolves and the overlapping of discordant sounds, both thoughts and images to unify the various elements into a general spectral atmosphere, Erice exhibits a singular sensitivity to subjective experience, emphatically placing value on individual interpretation without being precious about it, or even feeling shackled to any one individual. Potent symbols abound, but their significance is unannounced, or perhaps it is just that it always remains out of reach, except for rare moments such the one in which Ana is asked to place eyes on a two-dimensional figure in front of her class at school: here is an unmistakable lesson in seeing. By this point in Spirit of the Beehive, Ana and her older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) have shared the experience that, over a short period, will radically alter Ana’s relationship to what is seen and not seen.
A truck arrives in their town. It carries in it a dubbed version of James Whale's Frankenstein, which is projected in a makeshift screening room. Films are surely rare spectacles in these parts. And Ana, overwhelmed by the story of the monster and the girl he inadvertently kills, leaves the screening with important questions she can’t answer alone. Before they sleep that same night, Isabel tries to explain the film to her sister in a way that blurs her own ideas of reality and fiction. She tells Ana that the monster is not really dead because movies are fake; however, the monster himself is real and, if he knows you, you can call out to him at night and he will visit. Rather than demystifying the film, Isabel’s complex reading makes the mystery of the artificial man more real for Ana, and soon Ana’s own tactile experience, particularly the things she witnesses at an abandoned farm near the train tracks, will confirm her sister’s testimony.
Adults move through Ana’s world either mutely or speaking in riddles. They have withdrawn from the world to preoccupy themselves with, in the case of Ana’s father Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), beekeeping and nocturnal writing, copying out passages from Maurice Maeterlinck's Life of the Bee; or in that of her mother, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) writing to an unidentified other who she knows may never actually receive her letters. Ana’s mother’s writing could perhaps be interpreted as a model for Ana’s own private missives: both enact a kind of prayer, sending out messages in spite of the hopeless ambiguity surrounding delivery.
Spirit of the Beehive is a strangely textured, hauntingly beautiful and seductively slippery film of seemingly always fading autumnal light, mirrored images and enveloping enigma. Not unlike The Curse of the Cat People, its insight into child psychology through the examination of traumas that adult eyes never fall upon bridges the magical thinking of early childhood and the melancholy observation of movies that look to the past for knowledge of the present. It’s somehow a fairy tale, a tone poem and a political allegory all at once. In short, its unforgettable, and not to be missed by anyone with a tolerance, much less a desire, for the sublime that lays in the shadows of the inexplicable.