Spirit of the Beehive (1973) - Victor Erice
I have begun my voyage to spain with what has become perhaps the best known and admired of all Spanish cinema, Victor Erice's landmark Spirit of the Beehive. A film long considered the crowning jewel in a national cinema that was given a brief opportunity to at least appear liberal and even at times critical. Beginning with the groundbreaking Carlos Saura film The Hunt (1966), Spain entered a radical reformation, where Franco tried to elevate the international status of his nation's cinema. The result helped foster the return of Luis Bunuel, and gave a young Victor Erice the opportunity to make his first of only three feature films.
Spirit of the Beehive is pure allegory. It feels the bitter aftertaste of the Civil War, without ever directly commenting on it. Instead the story takes us into the world of a young girl, and through her eyes it isn't surprising that the War would not seem an overbearing topic. Erice set the film in 1940, and began his film with the idea of someone's first reaction to cinema. In this case it was the film Frankenstein and how two girls would react to it. Neither seems particularly scared of the monster, but actually seek to find him. In one humerous scene where Isabel (Isabel Telleria) is telling her sister Ana (Ana Torrent) how to contact him, just then you hear the offscreen pacing of their father. Not being privaleged to the information we have, the girl's assume that it is the monster walking around their house.
All of the film is developed in a series of scenes, each unrelated to the one preceding it. Life goes on, and even in individual framings there is no real sense of a complete picture, just fragments. It is a film of memory, of anecdotes and things returning sporadically. In many ways, despite the change of genders, it is Erice's own childhood. things he remembered growing up, thrown together, without any prevalent theme. The style of images is composed in homage to painters rather than filmmakers, and many of the film's images look as though they could be snapshots in a family album. Perhaps not surprisingly Erice shows us some of his character's own family albums.
It is a personal, reminiscent cinema, and one that has captivated audiences for the last 34 years. Criterion's new DVD release of it has insured that another generation, warmed to Spanish language cinema after the triumph of Pan's Labyrinth will discover it. This film does anticipate Del Torro's film, in its female child protaganist, its nostalgic setting, and her escape into a world of fantasy. Del Torro goes much more in depth into that fantasy world, but Erice is showing a child's imagination, and fragments of what once went through his own mind as a child. Ana Torrent would appear in Carlos Saura's Cria two years later cementing her status as an iconographic child actress, and has continued to make movies ever since. Erice though has become something of a Spanish Terence Malick, making only two other films since Spirit. Two films I plan on adding to this Spanish film fest before too long.