Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Tracing Childhood’s Alternate Realities

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday September 29, 2006

Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) is one of the most influential and iconic of Spanish films. Set “somewhere on the Castillian plain” in 1940, just after the Spanish Civil War, Erice’s film conjures a remote village where the echoes of war and repression resound in the lives of an increasingly fragmented family.  

Criterion has just released the film on DVD in an excellent edition which faithfully renders the film’s honey-colored lighting and evocative score. The two-disc set also includes informative extra features, including an interview with Erice and a documentary about the film in which Ana Torrent, the child actress, returns to the village as an adult. 

Torrent plays a young girl, also named Ana, just 6 or 7 years old, who becomes mesmerized when she and her older sister attend a screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein, an experience that inspires a series of thoughts, emotions and free associations which haunt her and dramatically transform her interpretation of the world in which she lives. 

The two girls live with their parents in a shell of house, a hollowed-out Faulknerian manor that stands like a decaying relic of a long-lost past. And contained within that house are likewise faded, hollowed-out people, seemingly damaged by years of conflict, both personal and political. I say seemingly because Erice never spells anything out with any degree of certainty; he merely suggests, presenting his characters as they exist in the present, their withdrawn behavior providing the only intimation of what happened in the past.  

Distance and space are major themes. The horizon of the plain is high and far, with fields stretching for miles in all directions. And the distances between people seem greater still. The parents, for instance, are rarely shown in the same shot, and each frequently seems to have no idea where the other has gone. The wife bicycles off to the train station to deliver a letter, and we get the feeling she has done it surreptitiously. She stands for a moment on the platform, watching with detachment as soldiers on the train gaze at her through the windows as they briefly pass in and out of her world. Meanwhile the father returns home from his beekeeping tasks and settles himself in a chair in his study, facing away from the door and toward a window as he puts on headphones to listen to a short-wave radio. Their connections with each other and with the outside world are tenuous; the world, for whatever private reasons, is held at arm’s length. 

In one extraordinary shot, Erice keeps the camera trained on the wife’s face as she feigns sleep when her husband enters the room and fumbles his way into bed. He never enters the frame; he is but a vague, shapeless shadow on the wall behind her. And when he finally settles in, she opens her eyes again and simply stares straight ahead until the fadeout. Her husband is no longer a partner and companion, but merely something she lives with, a regularly occurring event she has ceased to even acknowledge.  

The film is based primarily on the childhood memories of Erice and his co-screenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos. It began, Erice says, with the image of the Frankenstein monster and the little girl together at the water’s edge in the 1931 movie. That image, he said, conveyed to him all one could ever wish to express in an image. But the cinematic influences on Spirit of the Beehive go further than Frankenstein. In fact, the film is full of subtle references to other films, for its premise is based on the dreamlike qualities of the cinematic experience. The scene at the train station is staged to resemble one of the Lumiere brothers’ earliest films; many of the wide shots of the plain suggest the panoramic drama of American westerns; and the scene in the cinema, with the faces of enthralled children gazing in rapt attention, is reminiscent of the scene in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows when the young protagonist skips school and takes in a Punch ‘n’ Judy show at the local amusement park. 

There is a crucial moment in the cinema scene that sets the stage for the rest of the film. The children, including Ana, were in fact watching Frankenstein while Erice and his cameraman staked out a spot off to the side and filmed them with a hand-held camera, capturing the reactions on their faces. It was a gamble and it paid off, for Erice got exactly what he was looking for: At the moment when the monster kills the little girl, Ana’s face changes; her eyes widen as she leans forward and appears to catch her breath. She has clearly identified with the characters on the screen and is seeking to understand the monster, his lumbering, primitive form something of a reflection of the walking dead around her. It is the magic of cinema, just as Erice remembered it from his own childhood.  

Thus begins a subtle and complex inner drama as Ana, too young to distinguish between fantasy and reality, internalizes the story, becoming deeply concerned for the ostracized monster. Her older sister tells her that the monster is not really dead, that he lives nearby in an abandoned well. Eventually Ana makes the trip out to the well alone, and finds in the adjoining farmhouse an escaped freedom fighter. And when the fighter is later discovered and executed, screen fantasy and daily life become inextricably linked in her mind; she confuses the freedom fighter with the monster, his death with the monster’s death, the film’s vengeful townfolk her own townfolk.  

And here again we see the brilliance of Erice’s use of long takes. Previously they had been used to emphasize the spaces between people and the slow passage of time. But with Ana they express much more, dramatizing that stretch of time between a child’s absorption of events and her final synthesis and interpretation of those events, the melding of disparate experiences into a new and private reality.  



Photograph: Ana Torrent (left) plays a young girl haunted by the free associations that stem from a screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein in Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973). 



$39.99. 99 minutes. Criterion.