1973 / Director. Victor Erice.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
You cannot have a discussion about Spanish cinema without THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE being touted as one of the most significant films the country has ever produced. It ranks highly on most respectable ‘best of’ lists and has become synonymous with influencing the work of Guillermo Tel Doro (most notable THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LANYRINTH).
Made in 1973, while Spain was still under the power of the Franco regime, the film was a subversive and symbolic story that acted as a bold statement against the government at a time when speaking against the tyranny was met with harsh penalty. SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE was subliminal enough to evade retribution, and yet powerful enough to speak for the people. And while its political significance has lessened with time, its power of imagery is stronger than ever some forty plus years later.
Set in a small isolated community in the year 1940, the film follows the emotional journey of a seven-year-old girl named Ana. When the 1931 film FRANKENSTEIN is played at the local hall, her imagination is captured and suddenly she is confronted with all kinds of questions about life. What is real and what is not? Her older sister fills her head with falsehoods and unwillingly puts her on a path towards the coming of reason, with some very confronting adult consequences.
There is no question that THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE is a work of art. It is a complex and philosophical story that is told in the simplest of terms. As seen through the eyes of a child, the film employs a minimalist form of narrative, which relies on image and relegates dialogue to the background. Characters only speak when it is necessary to convey information that the camera cannot, and whatever words they do speak are kept to a minimum. The outcome is a hypnotic and viscerally poetic story that blends realism with fantasy and leaves many of the themes and symbolisms to the viewer’s interpretation.
The cinematography is second to none, with wide sprawling landscapes, long static weather-shots and a wonderful assortment of varying two-shots. The film is captured like a fairytale and is all the most incredible considering that the cinematographer was all but blind at the time.
THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE is not a film you can watch just once. It benefits from repetition and it demands your attention. It’s impossible to look away from the beauty presented on screen and with the benefit of a modern remastered release, it looks more vibrant that most films from the past decade. This is quintessential viewing for all cinephiles.