The film opens in the year 1940 in a small isolated Spanish village on the Castilian plateau, as a ramshackle truck arrives as the village's children scamper around it shouting, "The movies coming! The movies coming!" A screen and projector are set up within the public hall, as children and adults gather together to see the James Whale horror classic Frankenstein. When the monster appears on the screen he has an astounding emotional effect on the children, especially the iconic scene in which the monster comes upon and accidentally drowns a farmer's daughter. One child's misunderstanding of this scene will shape the upcoming events in Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest Spanish films of all time. Similar to Charles Laughton's 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter and Guillermo Del Toro more recent masterpiece Pans Labyrinth, The Spirit of the Beehive gorgeously blends the elements of the fantasy and horror and places them within the eyes of a innocent adolescent; exploring on how these fantastical elements can clash with the harsh truths of war and reality. Interestingly enough the screenplay was based on the memories of Erice and the co screenwriter Angel Fernandez, re-creating such childhood memories as school anatomy lessons, the discovery of poisonous mushrooms and the village being a dangerous playground of ghoulish pranks that involved the themes of life and death. When the film was first released in 1973 it was immediately controversial because of its political metaphors, and when the film won the San Sebastian Award, it was attacked by leftist critics who booed the film with some even stomping their feet with protest. The film was considered by many a critical portrayal of the fascist regime which was under the forty-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco who came to power in Spain in 1939, after a bloody civil war that overthrew a leftist government. The Spirit of the Beehive is looked at as a classic example of 'Francoism aesthetics' which was an artistic expression towards leftist experimental movies at the time that usually used the themes of fantasy and allegory. Similar to Luis Bunuel's masterpiece Viridiana, Francoism was used as a function to raise the standard of Spanish cinema (which at the time was mostly dominated by crude comedies), and to change the negative image of Spanish films abroad creating a new found artistic and subtle impression that freedom of expression was permitted within the cinema.
The credits represent a little child drawings. "Once upon a time...." The film opens on the small isolated Spanish village somewhere on the Castilian plateau. The year is 1940, and the civil war has just ended with the Francoist victory over the Republican forces. A ramshackle truck is driving along a long dusty country road as it arrives in the small village honking its horn. Right upon entering the children of the village scamper around it shouting, "The movies coming! The movies coming!" A screen and projector are set up within the town hall, as children and adults gather together inside, some with folding chairs right at 5:00 to see the 1931 James Whale horror classic Frankenstein.
Once the screening starts all the kids hush down as they watch the beginning prologue warning that says, "The film's producers do not wish to present it without a preliminary word of caution. This is the story of Dr. Frankenstein. Prepare yourself. You may be shocked, or even horrified. Few films have had greater impact all over the world. But I would advise you, not to take it too seriously." The children are enthralled with the images they are witnessing on the screen as six -year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) sits next to her older sister Isabel.
The two girls live in a large manor in the village with their parents Fernando and Teresa Fernando. Fernando is a scholar and poet who spends most of his time absorbed in his study writing or tending to his beehives. Teresa is his much younger wife who seems to be caught up in daydreams about a distant lover in Nice, France. She writes to this distant lover while gazing out the window (gazing in the direction of which will be the old house Ana will later find the republican soldier). The letters she writes to him say:
"Though nothing can bring back the happy moments we spent together, I pray that God grant me the joy of seeing you again. That's been my constant prayer, ever since we parted during the war, and it's my prayer still here in this remote spot where Fernando and the girls and I try to survive. Little but the walls are left of the house you once knew. I often wonder what became of everything we had there. I don't say that out of nostalgia. It's hard to feel nostalgic after what we've been through these past few years. But sometimes when I look around me and see so much loss, so much destruction and so much sadness, something tells me perhaps our ability to really feel life has vanished along with all the rest. I don't even know if this letter will reach you. The news we get outside is so scant and confusing. Please write soon to let me know your still alive. With all my love, Teresa."
Teresa rides her bike to the local train station to deliver her letter as Fernando continues tending his bee hive. Fernando admires his gold pocket watch that plays a tune, which seems to be an item of great personal importance to him. After tending the bee hive Fernando takes a walk passed the local movie house where his children are presently inside attending. He than heads back to his manor and looks for his wife but his maid Milagro informs him she has recently gone out. Fernando sits down in his study to relax and read the paper but he can overhear the Frankenstein movie coming from the movie house and he decides to step out on his balcony to listen to it.
Inside the movie house the Frankenstein film is at the iconic scene in which the monster comes upon a farmer’s young daughter tossing flowers into a pond to watch them float. (It is unclear but the film doesn't exactly show the daughter's drowning or maybe perhaps it didn't show the death because of censorship) but the shot cuts back to the father carrying the daughter's drowned body back to the village.
For the children in the audience, this horrifying scene marks a powerful impression especially for young Ana. Ana quietly leans over and asks her older sister Isabel, why Frankenstein killed the little girl. Isabel whispers back to her that she will tell her later that evening. The evening arrives and Teresa arrives home on bike and the children arrive home excited and afraid from the recent picture. At bedtime Ana asks Isabel again what Isabel promised she was going to tell her at the movie show.
"Why did he kill the girl, and why did they kill him after that?"
"You don't know. You're a liar"
"They didn't kill him, and he didn't kill the girl."
"How do you know? How do you know he didn't die?"
"Everything in the movies is fake. It's all a trick. Besides, I've seen him alive."
"In a place I know near the village. People can't see him. He only comes out at night."
"Is he a ghost?"
"No. He's a spirit."
"Like the spirit of Dona Lucia talks about?"
"Yes, but spirits don't have bodies. That's why you can't kill him."
"But he had one in the movie. He had arms and feet. He had everything."
"It's a disguise they put on when they go outside."
"If he only comes out at night, how can you talk to him?"
"I told you he was a spirit. If you're his friend you can talk to him whenever you want. Just close your eyes and call him. 'It's me, Ana.'"
The two children suddenly become dead silent when they hear a noise, when it is obviously their father's footsteps from down below in his study pacing back in forth, and contemplating what to write. When Fernando finally decides what to write he takes a seat at his desk and begins:
"Someone to whom I recently showed my glass beehive, with its movement like the main gear wheel of a clock...Someone who saw the constant agitation of the honeycomb, the mysterious maddened commotion of the nurse bees over the nests, the teeming bridges and stairways of wax, the invading spirals of the queen, the endlessly varied and repetitive labors of the swarm, the relentless yet ineffectual toil, the fevered comings and goings, the call to sleep always ignored, undermining the next day's work, the final repose of death far from a place that tolerates neither sickness nor tombs...Someone who observed these things after the initial astonishment had passed, quickly looked away with an expression of indescribable sadness and horror."
That night when Fernando heads to bed the camera stays completely still on Terese as she pretends to be sleeping in their bed, as the viewer can hear Fernando walking up the stairs, into the room, to brush his teeth and get into his bed. (The entire family is never seen together in a single shot throughout the whole film.)
The next day the two children head to school. The children are being taught the human anatomy and there is a figure of a wooden man that the teacher named Don Jose which is a teaching tool for the students to learn the correct places for several parts of the human anatomy. Several students are called upon to attach a piece of Don Jose's body in the correct area. Ana is called upon to put the last piece on which are the eyes of Don Jose.
While the two girls are walking home after school, Ana is still fascinated with the Frankenstein film and Isabel plays upon her younger sister's gullibility by continuing her story about Frankenstein being a spirit. Isabel points out a desolate abandoned sheepfold with a well, which she claims is the monster's house and Isabel takes Ana to it.
Ana is intrigued by this abandoned sheepfold and returns to it alone many times to look for Frankenstein. On these several secret trips to the sheepfold Ana investigates the well, yelling out and dropping a stone down inside it. On one trip Ana is walking around the sheepfold and finds a adult footprint in the dirt. One night both girls are playing shadow puppets in their beds with candles and Isabel questions Ana on where she goes during the day, knowing perfectly well Ana heads over to the sheepfold, and on one occasion even follows her to spy.
The two sisters quickly quite down when Fernando enters their bedroom and they go to sleep. The next day the two girls are going mushroom hunting with their papa Fernando and he teaches them how to tell the difference between a good mushroom and a poisonous mushroom that could kill a human being if simply eaten. He than tells a story that his grandfather told him and points to a location faraway called the mushroom garden where the best mushrooms grow.
One morning before school Teresa is doing Ana's hair and Ana asks her mother what a spirit is and asks if they're bad. Teresa says, "With good little girls they're very good, but with bad girls they're very bad." While walking to school Ana and Isabel play along the train tracks and put their ear to the metal rims to hear the sound of the train approaching.
One beautiful day each family member seems to be bored and restless and doing something different in different sections of the house. Teresa is in the main hall playing with the piano keys, and Ana is in her father's bee-house admiring all the beehives. Isabel is gently holding their family cat, and for some reason probably out of morbid curiosity she starts to tighten her grip and choke the cat but not before the cat retaliates and leaps away cutting Isabel's finger.
Ana moves into the house and goes through her father's photographs (one of the photographs shows her father and Miguel de Unammuno, a famous intellectual of Franco's rebellion.) Ana than moves to her father's study and plays on her father typewriter until she suddenly hears a scream and follows the scream down the hall. Ana arrives to find her sister Isabel collapsed on the living room floor and not moving.
Ana is a little unsure what to think, and says to her sister, "He's not here anymore. He's gone." When Ana leaves the room and runs to get help she can't seem to find anyone including their maid Milagroand, so she makes her way back to the original room and finds that her sister is now gone. Suddenly two hands in working gloves grabs her from behind and she comes to realize that her sister is playing a prank on her once again.
Late that night Ana sneaks out of the house and while looking at the night sky, she closes her eyes (probably to wish that the spirit could show itself.) The film than cuts to a fugitive republican soldier leaps from a passing train and limps to the sheepfold to hide. In the next scene, a fugitive republican soldier leaps from a passing train and limps to the sheepfold to hide.
The next morning Ana returns to the manor after being out all night. Isabel asks her sister where she was but Ana doesn't answer her and instead heads to bed. It's sort of unclear when Ana discovers the fugitive soldier in the sheepfold but when she first encounters him he pulls a gun. She surprisingly doesn't run away in terror and instead brings him food, water and even brings him her father's coat and gold pocket watch. This odd, wordless friendship ends abruptly when the Francoist police come in the night, find the republican soldier and shoot him. The police soon connect Ana's father with the fugitive and assume the solder stole the items from Fernando when they reclaim his gold pocket watch.
Fernando has a feeling one of his daughter's knew about the soldier and gave him the pocket watch. To find the answer he pulls it out the next morning at breakfast and winds it playing the tune. Judging by Ana's shocked reaction that her father got the watch back, Fernando knows she gave the pocket watch to the soldier. Later that day Ana heads to the sheepfold and discovers the soldier is nowhere in sight. Ana notices dry blood inside the sheepfold and she suddenly turns around after hearing a noise to find that her father followed her to the sheepfold. Fernando orders Ana to come to him but she runs off frightened.
Ana doesn't return home and so a search party gets sent out to search for Ana. Darkness sets in and Ana is wandering in the woods alone and comes across the poisonous mushroom her father previously told her and her sister about which will kill anyone who eats it. It is not clear if she eats it but she later has a vision of the monster within her own reflection which appears in a water puddle; as the monster gazes sadly at her, exactly almost shot by shot as in the 1931 film, and kneels beside her.
We see Teresa read a letter she wrote earlier to the man who lives in Nice, France, and burning it unsent, which implies that the love affair is over or that she will stop communicating with him. The early morning arrives as the search party finds Ana physically unharmed and she is returned home.
The doctor arrives to the home to check up on her. Teresa tells the doctor, "She hardly sleeps. She won't eat or speak. Light bothers her. She looks our way but doesn't recognize us. It's as if we didn't exist." The doctor says, "Ana, is still a very small child. She's under the effect of a powerful experience. But she'll get over it. Bit by bit she'll begin to forget. The important thing is your daughter is alive."
The evening arrives as you hear the writing of Fernando in his journal saying: "Someone to whom I recently showed my glass beehive, with its movement like the main gear wheel of a clock. Someone who saw the constant agitation of the honeycomb, the mysterious maddened commotion of the nurse bees over the nests, the teeming bridges and stairways of wax, the invading spirals..."
Fernando falls asleep at his desk within his study as Teresa quietly removes his glasses and blows out the lit lantern on his desk. Teresa goes to check on her sister, relieved that she returned safe. Late that night Ana removes herself from bed and opens the bedroom windows still remembering the story that Teresa told her. "When your his friend, you can talk to him whenever you want. Just close your eyes and call him. 'It's me, Ana.. It's me Ana.'" Ana closes her eyes and overhears a train and a train whistle.
Released in 1973, in the dying days of General Franco’s forty-year dictatorship, The Spirit of the Beehive soon established itself as the consummate masterpiece of Spanish cinema. Yet, strangely, many of the gifted artists who collaborated on Víctor Erice’s first feature, an atmospheric exploration of a child’s experience in a bleak village just after the civil war, have had troubled afterlives. Erice himself, acclaimed by critics as Spain’s greatest auteur, has completed only two features since (The South, another period drama, in 1982, and Quince Tree of the Sun/Dream of Light, a documentary on a painter, in 1983). The career of Luís Cuadrado, the creator of the luminous cinematography, was tragically cut short by blindness. Ana Torrent, the six-year-old star, remains haunted by the role that made her a Spanish icon. In 2003, on the thirtieth anniversary of The Spirit of the Beehive’s release, she posed for the poster for the San Sebastián Film Festival. Re-creating a scene she had shot so many years before, she stood solemn faced on the railway tracks. Erice has said, "When I’ve finished a film, it’s no longer mine—it belongs to the people." Surely few films have had such an enduring effect on both their makers and their audience.
The Spirit of the Beehive was controversial from the start. Although it won the main prize at San Sebastián on its release, the jury’s enthusiasm was not shared by all the public. Some of the audience, restless at the film’s slow pace, even booed. Yet The Spirit of the Beehive is a classic example of one strand of Spanish filmmaking at that time. Like many repressive regimes, Francoism attempted to use cinema to change its negative image abroad and to create the impression that freedom of expression was permitted. By producing some internationally successful "quality" films, the regime also hoped to raise the status of Spanish cinema generally, which was at that time dominated by crude, mainstream comedies. By the early seventies, these policies had led to the production and export of many experimental and even discreetly oppositional films, although, of course, no overtly leftist movies could be made. The gaping holes in the plot of The Spirit of the Beehive and the mysterious motivations of its characters are typical of this "Francoist aesthetic," a term used to describe artistically ambitious movies of the time that made use of fantasy and allegory. These characteristics, which remain so magical to modern audiences, were used in the period as a form of indirect critique.
What is unique about The Spirit of the Beehive is its reference to the horror genre. The enigmatic plot begins with two children, Ana and her sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería), watching James Whale’s Frankenstein in an improvised cinema in the village of Hoyuelos (like the actors, the location keeps its real name in the film). Obsessed with a spirit who her sister claims lives nearby, Ana will set out one night to meet him, with near tragic consequences. Erice recently recounted that when the child actress confronted his re-creation of Frankenstein’s monster on set, she was as deeply disturbed as her character is in the film.
Ana Torrent’s dark-eyed infant, mesmerized by the monster, was thought to be especially Spanish in her looks and was compared by critics to a Goya portrait. Her innocence is counterbalanced by the hard-won experience of her father, played by veteran Fernando Fernán Gómez. The latter’s fond familiarity to Spanish audiences (he had already played in more than one hundred films and would appear in one hundred more) helped to humanize the somewhat chilly austerity of the film’s form.
He is first glimpsed in the beekeeping mask that gives him the air of an astronaut (the bare Castilian landscape is also lent a lunar quality), and this existential isolation seems similar to that of Erice, who has often spoken of the intensely personal nature of his cinema and the purity of his self-expression. Indeed, Erice and coscreenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos (later a distinguished film critic) based the script on their own memories, re-creating school anatomy lessons, the discovery of poisonous mushrooms, and the ghoulish games of childhood. It is no accident that the film is set in 1940, the year of Erice’s own birth.
Early versions of the script are both more explicit and more political than the final film. Originally, the story had a frame narrative in which the adult Ana explained in voice-over the mysteries that she could not fathom as a child (The South would retain such a voice-over). Likewise, the opening sequence, which is now limited to the arrival of the traveling cinema in the village, was at first intended to include shots of abandoned cannons and battered army boots, a clear reference to the tragedy of the civil war. The question of how political The Spirit of the Beehive is has been hotly debated since the film’s premiere, when leftist critics attacked its lack of overt commentary. Yet to equate Franco and Frankenstein as twin masters of horror is too crude. By focusing not on national conflict but on domestic distress, what one reviewer called "the war behind the window," Erice gives a much more subtle and moving take on the historical trauma suffered by Spain in the twentieth century.
That trauma is signaled in coded references. The village may be a playground for heedless children, but its unpaved streets and ruinous buildings are scarred by conflict and deprivation. The father, Fernando, listens in secret to a shortwave radio (surely it is to the BBC, forbidden by the regime), while his wife, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), writes letters to an absent loved one (an envelope is addressed to a Red Cross camp in France, where Spanish refugees were interned). The character known only as "the fugitive," whom Ana visits in an abandoned barn, is presumably a member of the maquis, or anti-Francoist resistance. More generally, the insistent melancholia, approaching catatonia, of the household marks it out as one inhabited by members of the losing side in the war. As the innocent Ana leafs through the family photo album, we glimpse her father in a snapshot with Miguel de Unamuno, the famous intellectual who was a brave critic of Franco’s rebellion.
Erice conveys all this with great economy and reticence. The script is laconic (many of the best sequences are entirely silent), and the shooting style says it all. Each member of the family is introduced separately, in a different location: the spartan cinema, the teeming beehive, the hushed room, reminiscent of Vermeer, where Teresa writes her letter to an unknown man. Not once in the film’s ninety-nine minutes do they share the same frame. Typically, in the one sequence when all four are together, a family breakfast, Erice films each of them on their own. Because Erice rarely gives us an establishing shot to set up the action in such scenes, we feel as lost and disoriented as his child protagonist. Framing, too, is used to suggest existential isolation. In one moving sequence, when Fernando joins his wife in bed, she feigns sleep. Erice trains his camera on her watchful, fearful face, while her husband is reduced to indistinct offscreen noise and murky shadows cast on the bedroom wall.
The house itself, an authentic location, is perhaps the most important character in the film. The weathered stone facade, its large entrance crowned by a timeworn coat of arms, suggests an ancestral residence gone to seed (there are even battlements on the roof where Ana’s mother calls out to her lost daughter). Dark furniture is matched by gloomy oil paintings, carefully chosen for their themes: in the girls’ bedroom, an angel leads a child by the hand (Ana will become obsessed with death); in Fernando’s study, where he reads and types, Saint Jerome is depicted as a writer, with a skull placed prominently on his desk. Even the honey-colored light that streams through the windows, glazed with hexagonal panes, is more ominous than it first seems. It evokes the beehive of the title, which Fernando tells us is a society of feverish, senseless activity, one that has no tolerance for disease or death. Cuadrado’s cinematography thus cites a tradition of Spanish old masters that sees intimations of mortality not just in shadows but also in the vanity of everyday life. Ambitiously aiming his first feature at the heart of Spanish cultural tradition, Erice even has his opening title (“A village on the Castilian plain”) echo the first words of Spain’s national novel, Don Quixote (“In a place in La Mancha”).
Less evident, but no less exciting and innovative, is The Spirit of the Beehive’s sound design. Spanish films of the period generally used postdubbing for dialogue. The many child heroes of popular pictures were voiced by adult women shrilly impersonating infants. It is difficult to imagine now the shock felt by audiences on hearing real children’s voices, recorded live on location. Indeed, some complained that the atmospheric scenes where the children talk in whispers were inaudible. Elsewhere, Erice uses sound to cite the horror genre. As the children whisper about spirits (a candle flickers perilously between them), ominous clumping noises are heard offscreen (we later realize that it is just the father pacing the bare boards in an adjoining room). The original soundtrack, by acclaimed classical composer Luis de Pablo, combines uncanny melodies (including a haunting flute motif) with more familiar tunes taken from traditional children’s songs (one is called “Let’s Tell Lies”). In the final sequence, Ana looks straight into the camera as we hear her defiant invocation of the mysterious spirit: “Soy Ana” (better translated as “It’s me, Ana” than as “I am Ana”). Sound and image are perfectly fused.
Erice, who wrote a book on Nicholas Ray, has spoken of his love for Ray’s “beautiful” film We Can’t Go Home Again. Ironically, Erice’s own work can be seen as a repeated attempt to return home. After The Shanghai Gesture, a long-awaited feature project, fell through in the late 1990s, Erice shot a short in luscious black and white for the portmanteau movie Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (2002). In his segment, called “Timeline,” a baby is born in a village, once more in 1940, only to die unheeded as the villagers go about their everyday life. In Erice’s own words, “Blood blooms across the baby’s clothes like an endless rose.” The intimate connection between life and death in childhood, the great theme of The Spirit of the Beehive, could not be expressed more lyrically and tragically than here.
It seems unlikely that Erice, the perfectionist auteur, could have guessed that his filmmaking career would be so troubled for the thirty years that followed his miraculous debut. But while his oeuvre may be slight, it more than makes up in quality for what it lacks in quantity. Erice has said that he makes films “against time, to escape time.” It is an aim he has brilliantly fulfilled in The Spirit of the Beehive, a film that has left an indelible mark on cinema in Spain and beyond.
-Paul Julian Smith
Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive is a haunting and powerful vision of a traumatic childhood fantasy which has been called a "bewitching portrait of a child’s haunted inner life". Many of the collaborators on The Spirit of the Beehive seemed to have trouble years afterwards. For instance, the film became Erice's only real acclaimed film and he only made two other films after it. Luis Cuadrado who was the brilliant cinematographer went blind shortly after the movies release.
It was only Ana Torrent who the played the 6 year old lead who not only became a Spanish icon when the film was released but was one of the few to actually have a successful career. She starred in another powerful Spanish film which was Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos and has gone on to make 45 films and several TV series. Interestingly enough all four main characters each have a first name identical to that of the actor/actress playing them. This is because Ana, at her young age of seven at the time of filming was confused by the on- and off-screen naming.
Erice simply changed the script to adopt the actors names for the characters. In 2003 the film was given its 30th anniversary and was shown at the Sebastian Film Festival. Erice stated, "When I've finished a film, it's no longer mine...it belongs to the people."
The Spirit of the Beehive was controversial right from the beginning. The public did not share the jury's reception of the film when it won the main prize at the San Sebastian award show in 1973, and many leftist critics booed because of it's political critiques. When Francisco Franco came to power in Spain in 1939, a bloody civil war occurred that not overthrew a leftist government but split families up and left a society divided and intimidated into silence in the years following the civil war.
When The Spirit of the Beehive was released in 1973 even though the regime was not as severe as it originally was, it was still not possible to be openly critical on it and of the war. After this film was released, soon enough all artists within all of Spanish media were managing to slip in material and messages past the censor which was critical of the regime. Now that time has passed and a lot of its history is forgotten, the political symbolism isn't very noticeable, but it is there. For example the barren empty landscape around the sheepfold represents Spain's isolation during the beginning years of the Francoist regime.
At several points in the film Fernando describes in his writing his revulsion at the mindless activity of the beehive. This is was looked at as an allusion to human society under Francoism: "ordered, organised, but devoid of any imagination." The beehive theme is carried into the manor house which has hexagonal panes to its leaded windows and a honey-coloured light. At the start of the film, the authorities are using the Frankenstein film as a warning to the population about man's godless creations which have to be killed for the safety of the public. This is a veiled propaganda attempt to justify the violent overthrow of the Republican government in the civil war by intimating the monster to be the "godless" socialism of the Republic.
This metaphor is repeated later in the film when the hunted republican soldier takes on a role that is similar of the monster in the 1931 film, and is eventually shot and killed. Ana represents the innocent young generation of Republican Spain around 1940, while her sister's Isabel deceitful advice symbolises the Nationalists who are obsessed with money and power. As the film closes we see a warming of Teresa's feelings and the possibility of a future revival of the family's emotional life and by inference the life of Spain.
What makes The Spirit of the Beehive such a unique and fascinating film is its references to the fantasy/horror genre with a touch of Spanish history as the story is set soon after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Fernando from what I gather seems to be a recent member of the anti-Francoist resistance and along with his much younger wife Teresa must have been victims of the losing side of the Spanish Civil War; in which they express much of their feelings of sorrow and loss through their poetry and writings. The two never have any real conversations between one another, but they both seem to love their daughters.
The two main children Ana and Isabel are only a few years off, and yet it's a large enough divide in which Ana depends on her older sister to explain to her the mysteries of the world. The empty open landscapes presented in the film give Ana the freedom to roam wherever she pleases, and yet it can be a dangerous playground of ruinous buildings and death. Like in the French masterpiece Forbidden Games, death is a curious and morbid mystery that we become fascinated with at an adolescent age and when Ana first witnesses the death of the farmer's daughter by the hands of the Frankenstein, she starts to question why Frankenstein did it, because it fascinates her.
Ana Torrent was perfect for the innocent and gullible Anna, with her big wide eyes, and adorable naivety which radiates off the screen. We can accept why Ana is gullible enough to accept her sister's fictional stories in that Frankenstein is merely a spirit that lives nearby, because at that age we believe these stories because we want to believe. Believing her sister’s made-up stories serves for Ana's possible explanation why she's not scared of the wounded man when finding him in the sheepfold, and instead decides to sneak him food, water and her father's coat.
The cinematography in The Spirit of thet Beehive is absolutely gorgeous, as cinematographer Luis Cuadrado bathes the sun and earth tones with rich texture and color, and has them reflect all the vast empty rooms and interiors of the family manor, through yellow tinted hexagonal honeycombed windows. Several of the shots contain beautiful subtle moments of tranquility, including a candle light puppet show of children whispering about spirits, the diegetic sounds of creaking footsteps downstairs, the sounds of vibrations along a train track of an oncoming train, and a midnight search party of townspeople and the bobbing of lanterns throughout the night; which literally remind you of the fairy tales straight from the Brother's Grimm. They're many quiet and still sequences in the film in which the character's find themselves doing mindless activities, often alone in separate empty rooms. In the beginning of the film each member of the family is introduced separately and in a different location: the movie theatre, the teeming beehive, and the father's study; not once is the family shot together in the same frame. The house never seems very much occupied by the family and they're many occasions where the girls are left alone to do their own thing. A lot of critics have their own assumptions on who the fugitive soldier was hiding out in the sheephold. Some believe he was a member of the anti-Fascoist resistance and an old colleague of Fernando. Other critics believe it was Teresea's secret lover who was never identified, which is why after he was killed, she decided to end written communication by burning her written letter in the fire. When you take away all the politics and look at the surface of the film, what you find is a cautionary tale about the imagination of children and how it can lead to serious or even dangerous consequences. For instance, the older sister Isabel loves to tell fantastic stories and play pranks on her little sister; (what older sibling doesn't?) One of the most shocking scenes of the film was when Isabel plays dead on the floor and later comes up from behind and grabs Ana. These stories and mischievous pranks of fantasy and death can either be misinterpreted or go too far that it can become dangerous not only for the children but for the parents as well. Because Ana believes that the fugitive soldier could be the Frankenstein spirit that she alone can only see, that could of placed her in extreme danger. When she runs away and inspires a search from the town, we realize that the innocence of children and Isabel's mythical fairy-tales could have serious repercussions on the family. The Spirit of the Beehive is now considered one of the most important of all Spanish films. A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, wrote: "The story that emerges from Erice's lovely, lovingly considered images is at once lucid and enigmatic, poised between adult longing and childlike eagerness, sorrowful knowledge and startled innocence." Film critic Dan Callahan praised the film's cinematography, story, direction and acting. He wrote, "Every magic hour, light-drenched image in Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive is filled with mysterious dread....There's something voluptuous about the cinematography, and this suits the sense of emerging sexuality in the girls, especially in the scene where Isabel speculatively paints her lips with blood from her own finger...and Torrent, with her severe, beautiful little face, provides an eerily unflappable presence to center the film. The one time she smiles, it's like a small miracle, a glimpse of grace amid the uneasiness of black cats, hurtling black trains, devouring fire and poisonous mushrooms. These signs of dismay haunt the movie." The Spirit of the Beehive is one of the most gorgeous films ever made and the story can be looked at not just as a simple childhood fable, but a haunting adolescent perspective on the blur between fantasy and reality, truth and lies, and life and death.