Víctor Erice’s 1973 classic is a wonderfully dreamy, slow-paced evocation of rural Spain just after the end of the Civil War, seen through the eyes of six-year-old Ana. Set in the barren plains of Castile, the film starts with the projection of James Whale’s Frankenstein, brought to the village by a travelling cinema. After seeing the film, impressionable Ana becomes obsessed with meeting the monster. Eschewing the rules of a conventional plot, the film proceeds to paint the vivid imaginary world of childhood by weaving together subtle, suggestive imagery. Particularly beautiful are the intimate, honey-hued, candle-lit night scenes in which Ana and her sister whisper stories about the monster. Particularly revealing are the games they play, from the more innocent to the more unsettling ones, from pillow fights to playing dead.
The Spirit of the Beehive provides an impressive example of the creative benefits that can come from budgetary constraints. Lack of funds prevented Erice from making a horror film, as was his original idea. Instead, he used a classic horror film as the starting point of his work, infusing it with an understated Gothic mood all the more potent as it is found in the ordinary, as when little Ana walks through a cascade of half open doors, alone in the dark, big house. The moral ambiguity that surrounds the monster in Frankenstein is further explored and given depth, as it resonates, through Ana’s encounter with the wounded soldier, with the confusion and ambivalence of a country torn apart by Civil War.
The film is economical with words, the elliptical plot carried forward almost entirely visually. Erice’s lightness of touch avoids obvious metaphorical meanings and lets the juxtaposition of poetic images and strong scenes build a rich, poignant, complex world, the compelling atmosphere enhanced by a masterful use of light. The result is a haunting masterwork that elegantly connects the trauma of a whole country to the personal trauma of a little girl confronted with death.