Victor Erice’s 1973 debut, The Spirit of the Beehive, always stuck in my mind as a movie with some real artistry, belonging in discussions of the greatest films of all time. It had been eons since I last saw it, and my memory had dimmed enough that, to work out where to put it on a “best of all time” list, a rewatch was needed.
It was the kind of rewatch where I felt in a rush to reacquaint myself with it at first, and its slow pace felt at cross-purposes with that goal. My movie-saturated noggin, and my ever-shifting perspectives on life and art as I get older, often make me feel the need to rewatch movies to confirm they are still as good as I remember them.
It was also the kind of rewatch that by the end of the viewing, I was more than glad to have it bright and clear in my mind again. It is a beautiful and politically brave work of art, and the kind of movie that, though its world feels desolate and spiritually grief-stricken, its message has a good and inspirational energy.
The movie is quiet and slow paced, though its runtime is only 98 minutes. It is complex storytelling that builds a perspective that reminds you what it was like to be a child, including the constant threat of boredom. The movie could be said to be on some levels, at least until what it is saying becomes clear, boring — though sweet, emotionally complex, and shot superbly well.
As the story develops, it takes on greater character and interest, and becomes more directly engaging.
The plot follows a family living in a small village in Spain in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, 1940. Two sisters, six-year-old Ana and her elder sister Isabel, live in a farm house with their parents, Fernando and Teresa. Fernando is a beekeeper and poet, and spends his time absorbed in these occupations, emotionally removed and in something that strikes as a traumatised-but-technically-functional condition.
The presence of the Spanish nationalists and their instruments of state in post-Civil War Spain is subtly portrayed, from the countryside. This technique of making the evil force almost invisible likely helped the film be released there in the late years of Franco’s fascistic dictatorship. Many post-1939 films from Spain had to walk this tightrope, finding clever ways of expressing political views that took aim at the violent and authoritarian rule they were living under.
Spanish censors working for the dictatorship were alarmed by the film’s coded symbolism, but decided its artsiness and slow pace assured it would receive limited attention from the Spanish public, and it was safe to allow its release. The movie’s international success also seems to have had some influence.
The movie is, as well as a fictionalised historical drama, psychological horror — which the presence of Frankenstein’s monster signifies, acting as a kind of stand-in for the fascistic nationalists who took power in Spain. It uses horror to dramatic ends rather than to entertain. It is also storytelling with genius in how it communicates its message.
In the story, the local town receives an apparently censored cut of Frankenstein (1931). The missing pieces lead to misunderstanding about what happened and why in the story, stoking fear and uncertainty in the mind of Ana and, with the unintentional help of her sister, who can’t resist using her imagination to exploit her sister’s gullibility, traumatising her.
It is a smart and subtle way of showing the subversive effects of authoritarian governments who claim protective motives to justify state censorship. Altering works of art to avoid what are deemed “distressing” moments can leave those moments to be filled in by the imagination of the audience, and distort and disjoint their meaning in unintended ways. The fact the cut of Frankenstein the village receives has been censored is never mentioned, but is observable.
The countryside where the story is set is ghostly quiet, and the psychological world of most of its inhabitants is subdued. The unsettling post-war mood shows a dreary kind of sadness that prevails there, living in a land where the bad guys won, took power, and no way of reversing the course appears to exist. In the real world, it took 36 years for the dictatorship to come to an end, when Franco died of old age.
It also speaks of the silencing effects of trauma, in this case the trauma of war, and the long path of recovery from it — while asserting with hope that the traumatised are still alive, and recovery is possible.
The father, Fernando, can’t sleep at night. He paces his room, writing about the “spirit of the beehive” (a phrase taken from a verse by the 19th century Galician poet, Rosalía de Castro) and its “frantic, mysterious commotion.” It seems to be both what he dreads (monotonous, mindless, well-organised collective action like that which took power in his country) and perhaps in some ways dreams of (a lively and active, social and constructive society). A concept that contains both horror and beauty. He obsesses over it.
The image of a bustling beehive could also visualise hope for how the next generation can be, and the kind of society they can make, in contrast to the dreary silence of the current one. The story takes place in the Spanish Civil War’s immediate aftermath, with Republican soldiers still seeking shelter in the countryside, and being tracked down and shot by the military of Franco’s new government. The generation of the father’s seems very much lost.
The film is constructed in a way to slip by the Spanish censors of the time, so you have to listen quite carefully to hear its message. You could watch the film and appreciate it as an emotionally rich and complex family story and historical drama, shot with a wonderful visual quality and rhythm, without paying thought to the political subtext and message.
This is not a religiously spiritual film (Franco’s side was deeply entrenched with the Spanish Catholic Church, complicating religious sentiment in stories that take aim against it), but nonetheless it reaches levels of spiritual and emotional articulation few movies do. It feels spiritual in nature, but without the formal signification of any religion.
Don’t expect thrills and spills, but a message with this tone could not be delivered if the story was action-packed, or the world it shows was made more entertaining or overtly joyful. Love and joy exist only as natural qualities of the children and their ability to see and create it. They are relatively uncorrupted by the effects of the war, and may find ways to reverse its consequences in the years and decades to come, if they can avoid being traumatised by secondary effects in the meantime.
Looking at the timeline of when Franco’s regime fell and the country transformed itself into a liberal democracy (shortly after his death, and about two years after the movie’s release), it seems that is exactly what happened — making the movie a timely marker of history as it was unfolding. The movie solemnly shows the start of a dictatorship while still under its rule. Its production and release was a brave artistic act.
After the movie’s debut screening in 1973, some “audience members” offered its producer, Elías Querejeta, condolences. When it won first prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival, there were boos, and some stomped their feet in protest. Franco’s regime might have been in its death throes, but its supporters were very much alive, very much pig-headed, and vindictive in nature.
They still cause a ruckus at times, though they are now a small minority: such as in the prolonged lead-up to Franco’s remains being exhumed and relocated from an elaborate far-right shrine carved into a mountain near Madrid. Which finally did happen, in 2019.
Victor Erice has had a low output since his sublime debut. He made a follow-up feature ten years later, El Sur (1983), then one non-fiction feature, The Quince Tree Sun (1992)… since then, only shorts and contributions to other films. He was set to direct the 2002 film The Shanghai Spell, but the producer ultimately assigned it to another director.
Enrice’s conspicuous absence in Spanish cinema, which Roger Ebert decried in his 2012 review of this movie, is set to change soon. A new film with him at the helm as director, Cerrar los ojos (“Close Your Eyes”), is currently in production and tentatively set to be released this year. It is being shot in Spain at locations including Almería, Madrid, Granada, and Asturias.
After a gap of more than thirty years since his last feature-length film, now is a perfect time to revisit his past features.
The Spirit of the Beehive is not a film you’ll be drawn to rewatch for entertainment value, but it is great, complex, soft-spoken storytelling, beautifully photographed, and speaks intelligently and bravely in ways few filmmakers are capable of.
James Lanternman writes movie reviews, essays, and moonlit thoughts. You can reach him at [email protected].
Previously… The Beasts (As bestas): A Movie Review