Every magic hour, light-drenched image in Víctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive is filled with mysterious dread. Set in post Civil War Spain, circa 1940, it tells the tale of two young girls, Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Tellería), whose lives are marked when their village plays James Whale’s Frankenstein. The print they watch apparently does not include the censored moments when Karloff’s monster throws a little girl into a lake. They see the girl play with the Monster, then they see the girl’s father carrying her drowned body down the street (every child who saw this scene was hit by it: just ask your parents or grandparents). Isabel tells Ana that the spirit of the Monster lives in an empty outhouse near the village. As Ana becomes more and more intrigued with this possibility, a sort of hesitating menace seems to ooze out of every corner of the film.
Spirit of the Beehive is told from a child’s point of view. The girl’s parents (Fernando Fernán Gómez and Teresa Gimpera) are fairly impenetrable figures, though it’s clear that their marriage is in trouble. There’s something voluptuous about the cinematography, and this suits the sense of emerging sexuality in the girls, especially in the scene where Isabel speculatively paints her lips with blood from her own finger. At times, Beehive seems a little too in love with its own prettiness. Shots are held for longer than they should be so that we can gaze at the sun coming up, or at a pattern of light coming through a window. Cinematographer Luis Cuadrado was going blind at the time he shot this, so he seems to be cramming in as much optical wonderment as he can. It’s hard not to feel that this is a film where visual beauty is being indulged for its own sake, and sometimes to the detriment of the movie. It’s a mood piece, certainly, a personal collection of moments that add up into a kind of reflective-afternoon dreamscape. In Franco’s Spain, everything had to be in code, and the film gives us a subtle sense of what it is like to live under a dictatorship.
Torrent, with her severe, beautiful little face, provides an eerily unflappable presence to center the film. The one time she smiles, it’s like a small miracle, a glimpse of grace amid the uneasiness of black cats, hurtling black trains, devouring fire and poisonous mushrooms. These signs of dismay haunt the movie. Like Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Spirit of the Beehive is one of those strange, essentially private one-offs in film history that grows larger because of its isolation (Erice has only made two films since). But another Spanish film with Ana Torrent, Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos, expresses the same concerns with much greater lyricism and specificity. The Saura film is a weighty bookend for Beehive, and they belong together as works of art made under the shadow of (and stimulated by) governmental strain.