In the vast plains of Spain, harvesting its produce, a farmhouse rests. Some distance away there is a squat building like a warehouse, apparently not in use, the doors and windows are missing. In the house live a family of four: two little girls named Ana and Isabel, and their parents, Fernando and Teresa. He was a beekeeper, scholar and poet who spent a lot of time in the study of his books. She is a reclusive woman who writes letters of longing and loss to unidentified men. The parents had no conversation about any consequences.
It’s a great day in the village. A dilapidated truck rattling into town was announced by running children, who shouted, “Movie! Movie!” A screen and projector were installed in the common hall, and an audience of children and elderly women gathered to see “Frankenstein” (1931).
For kids, the movie might just be about the monster, which Boris Karloff clearly brought out. The creature came upon a young farmer’s daughter throwing flowers into the pond to watch them float. Perhaps due to censorship, the film cuts straight from this to a monster sadly carrying a drowning child’s body through the village. Maybe because of the censorship, we don’t see that he doesn’t sink it, but throws it happily, thinking he’ll float too. For the two girls, especially Ana (Ana Torrent), this gives a dramatic impression.
Although the timing is not set, it will become clear to Spanish audiences that the film is set immediately after the end of the Spanish Civil War, which began Franco’s long dictatorship – soon after that on the same day, the regime’s wounded opponents took refuge in warehouse-like outbuildings.
Only a few years separate Ana and Isabel (Isabel Telleria), but they form a crucial split in which Ana relies on her older sister to explain the mystery. The little girl ran carefree throughout the farmland, and in the barn she found a wounded soldier. That night, his eyes wide open in the darkness, he asked Isabel to explain why the creature drowned the little girl. “Everything in the film is fake,” he said. “It was all a hoax. Besides, I’ve seen him live. He is a spirit.” That of course served to Ana as a possible explanation for the injured man, and the next day, she smuggled him some food and water, and his father’s coat.
The following is considered a coded message about Franco’s fascist regime, but I cannot connect the dots. I attribute it more strongly to a poetic work about children’s imaginations, and how it can lead them into mischief and sometimes save them from the consequences.
“The Spirit of the Beehive” is one of only three feature and subject shorts directed by Erice (born 1940). Like films like Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), this is a masterpiece that can only make us wonder what he’s missing because he doesn’t work more. It’s simple, solemn, and in casting young Ana Torrent, takes advantage of her open and innocent features. We can well believe him when he accepts his sister’s explanation, which goes a long way toward explaining his behavior later in the film.
This is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Its cinematographer, Luis Cuadrado, bathes the frames in the colors of sun and earth, and in the interior of the family home, he creates scenes of empty rooms where footsteps echo. The house does not appear to be occupied by many families. The girls were often alone. Parents too, in separate rooms. Many of the father’s poems involve meaningless rummaging through beehives, and the yellow beehive windows of the house make clear references to beehives. Presumably this mirrors the Franco regime, but as critics get more specific in spelling out the parallels they see, I feel like I’m reading a paper.
More useful is to read the surface of the film. When Ana’s goodwill towards “spirits” is misinterpreted, and when she is linked to an injured man by her father’s pocket watch, this creates a situation that can be dangerous for both father and daughter. When she escapes and inspires the search—a volunteer lantern bobbing through the night—we get a feel for how innocent children’s behavior can get them into trouble. In a later scene where Ana plays Isabel, the older child also discovers how her myth-making has an impact.
Ana Torrent starred in another famous Spanish film, Carlos Saura’s “Cria Cuervos” (1976). She has gone on to a successful career, making 45 films and TV series, including Saura’s “Elisa, My Life” (1977), her first film after Franco’s downfall. But child actors are often bathed in a radiance of charm that their later roles won’t be able to capture.