'Spirit Of The Beehive', which begins 'Once upon a time...', uses children's drawings in its opening credits, anticipating the film's key scenes, spaces and motifs. This alerts us to the child's-eye view the film will largely take, focusing on two young sisters in s small Spanish village, Segovia, in 1940. They live in a vast, decaying mansion with their parents (a solitary, obsessive beekeeper, and a mother dreaming of her exiled lover), and servants. When James Whale's 'Frankenstein' is shown in the village hall, the younger sister, Ana, is particularly haunted by the scene in which the monster plays with a little girl by the side of a lake, throwing floating daisies onto the water. Her sister tells her that the monster didn't die in the film, but that his spirit lurks around an nearby abandoned outhouse, beside a well in an arid plain. Spotting a large footstep in the area, Ana prepares herself to meet the spirit.
Victor Erice's film, often conidered the greatest ever made in Spain, is at once ascetic and sensual. It is ascetic in its evocation of a depleted Spain, one year after the bloody trauma of the Civil War, a place heavy with silences and suppressed emotions, parched, peeling buildings surrounded by dusty streets and outlying areas as dully stagnant as this new way of life, former granduer a dessicated memory. The film is sensual in the way this world is seen, coloured and re-imagined by the two young heroines, especially intense, dark, bow-legged Ana. The house they live in, like the beehive their father tends (grilled like a honeycomb, glowing with an amber light), is a silent, claustrophobic, ill-lit mansion, stripped of its personal decor, the kind of haunted house pregnant with silent screasm we find in late Bergman (e.g. 'Cries and Whispers'). But while their exhausted, experience-reeling parents give up, the girls explore its mysteries like the innocent heroines of Gothic fiction or fairy tales. There is very little dialogue in the film, limited to the remnants of civilisation (school) or the elegiac confessions of letters and diaries - much of 'Spirit' is choreographed around brooding, pregnant, enigmatic rituals.
In a film haunted by ghosts and the charred traces of a vanished way of life, even the characters, in their movements and silences, move around familiar spaces like phantoms. The two great unspoken voids of the film - the Civil War and Franco - are only indirectly alluded to, and yet they shape this world, they are the spirit of this beehive. A necessarily symbolic and allusive work (made under the Fascists, its strategies, allegories and even style recall Eastern European films made under similar totalitarian regimes), metaphors work in complex, shifting patterns, in once sense, connecting characters in unexpected ways (trains, watches, monsters etc.), they are a further grid constricting these dead characters. On another, they magic another reality, of spirits, ghosts, memories, shadows beyond the reach of a spirit-destroying regime that would burn all records of alternative possibilities and realities. Even if it achieved nothing else - and 'Spirit' is one of the most potent, quietly stunning and moving films in all cinema - then Erice's movie would be precious for rescuing 'Frankenstein' from camp, and restoring its austere beauty.