I have heard of many comparisons between Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive and the films of Guillermo del Toro, particularly The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. While I do not disagree with this, and thought of del Toro’s work while watching the film, I find them to be too quick and easy to make. On a surface level, yes, Beehive and those two films are set either during or in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. They are located in desolate areas of Spain that have been ravaged by the war. Finally, they concern themselves with the inner lives of children, mixing poetic fantasy with harsh realism. Del Toro’s films are decidedly part of the horror genre, featuring ghosts, fantastical creatures and monsters. Although Erice’s film is not classified as a horror film, I would claim that it is far more disturbing, unsettling and subtle than any of del Toro’s work, in spite of how much I do love those films as well.
Ana Torrent plays Ana, the six-year-old daughter of an intellectual and housewife living in a village in a remote Castilian plain. It is 1940, and she and her older sister, Isabel (Isabel Tellería), watch a Spanish-language print of James Whale’s Frankenstein, which has somehow made its way into a tiny movie house in the village. The first minutes of the film follow the path of the rickety truck that carries the film reels. Children crowd around the truck as men try to unload the reels, shouting “¡Película, película!”, the Spanish word for “movie.” Ana and Isabel become transfixed and terrified by the film, which continues to haunts their imaginations over the course of several days.
In spite of the expansive size of the mansion they call home, Ana and Isabel share a bedroom together, in which Ana furtively whispers questions to her sister about her confusion with the horrors of the film. Clearly, Ana does not understand that the events of the movie are fictional—a “trick,” Isabel attempts to clarify—and one could almost say she has been traumatized by the film. Not that her parents would know as much, because they are too individually wrapped up in their own lives to pay attention to their daughters. Fernando writes in his journal and tends to his beehives, while Teresa whiles away the day writing letters to an unknown lover and solemnly staring out the window.
The Spirit of the Beehive has been called one of the most beautiful movies ever made, by both Roger Ebert and the Criterion Collection. I wouldn’t argue with this statement. The cinematography by Luis Cuadrado is absolutely transfixing, and subscribes to the same school of the Magic Hour utilized by Terrence Malick DPs Nestor Almendros and Emmanuel Lubezki. Earth tones and golden-honey hues abound in the film, nestling you in a false sense of security even as you realize that Ana is slowly becoming detached from the real world. Erice’s camera does not move much, but makes abundant and effective use of close-ups from the child actors, as well as Ozu-esque framing of the extensive hallways of the children’s home. These are in contrast with the devastatingly gorgeous landscape shots of the outside world, which seems so tragically wide-open in comparison to the suffocating interiors.
Unlike the films of del Toro, Beehive lacks supernatural elements but, to its credit, is just as sinister as the others. Ana’s encounter with death and the way it sparks her imagination is plenty disturbing, from the way she and her sister nearly strangle a cat to death, to the childish yet quite serious pranks they play on one another. The fact that Ana and Isabel have only each other to work through their discoveries makes their situation all the more terrifying, because they can interpret the world only through their limited lenses. In some ways it’s better to imagine a world in which children are given free reign to dwell and discover on their own, but their parents’ almost complete lack of involvement is off-putting, indeed.
I can see myself showing The Spirit of the Beehive to friends for many years to come. They may be turned off by the film’s significant lack of dialogue or narrative drive, neither of which is required when the director’s sense of atmosphere and alluring visuals are the real attraction.