In 1972, when Director Víctor Erice made El Espíritu De La Colmena (The Spirit Of The Beehive), Spain was still ruled by General Franco, who hung on until his death in 1975. The 20th century’s longest-lasting fascist regime wasn’t comfortable for filmmakers, and Erice was taking a great risk simply by making a movie set in 1940 which wasn’t a propagandist effort in which stalwart Francoists won victories against evil, priest-massacring Republicans. On its home turf, the film was nearly banned because it broke a long-standing taboo in its depiction (admittedly oblique) of a sympathetic Republican fighter. Only success at overseas festivals — and the philistine censors’ assumption that few people would bother to see such a slow-paced, thinly-plotted and ‘arty’ picture — allowed it to get a release in Spain. An international arthouse hit in the 1970s, The Spirit Of The Beehive is one of those films (Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath Of God is another) that has stuck in the minds of everyone who saw it, and proved surprisingly influential. Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth both draw on Erice’s work in their depictions of children drawn to fantasy worlds around the bloody mess of the Spanish Civil War. The lonely little girl who, left to her own devices by loving but distracted parents, is ultimately befriended by the spectre of the Frankenstein Monster is a template for all those Steven Spielberg children who bond with magical beings.
An opening caption establishes the location as “a village on the Castilian plain” — famously rained-upon, though here it seems almost a desert, albeit one with a magical (perhaps imaginary) fairy-land lake — and the year as “about 1940”. A travelling showman arrives and projects a film, James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein (dubbed into Spanish), in the village hall, in front of a rapt audience which includes six year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) and her slightly older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería). Erice filmed this sequence ‘as live’, showing his young actors the old movie and covertly filming their reactions. When Ana first catches sight of the Monster on screen, Torrent’s fascination, awe and fear are genuine. As with Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, made a year or so earlier, the showing of a classic film (there, Howard Hawks’ Red River) rouses characters who have quite enough to worry about otherwise, allowing ’70s audiences a way back to their own childhoods. Snatches of Frankenstein’s visionary dialogue drift into the house next door, and distracts the girls’ bee-keeping father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) from his books. Later, in bed in their room, the girls whisper about the film, and Isabel (a right little madam) tells the trusting Ana that the Monster did not die in the fire at the end of the movie and that she has seen him — a spirit who can never die — somewhere nearby.
Almost all the cast, grown-up or otherwise, shared the Spanish censors’ bewilderment upon reading the script (by Erice and Ángel Fernández Sántos), and a strength of the film is its refusal to explain exactly what anything means — or, indeed, precisely what is going on in Ana’s family, the village or the country. Whether its tactful reticence in political matters was due to artistic intent or a desire to dance around the censors, this is a film whose significance is as universal as it is specific. The static images and haunted faces suggest situations which have endured for centuries and which will persist no matter who rules the country. The wounded Republican who turns up late in the film as a reminder of the unseen conflict stands less for adult concerns than he does an answer to Ana’s yearning fantasies. To Ana, the resistance fighter is just as real and just as magical as the Monster, another lost soul whom she encounters in the vicinity of her parents’ desolate Castilian home.
Throughout the film, tiny details come to convince Ana that the Monster is indeed close: a primitive anatomy lesson in which pupils slot wooden organs into the torso of an artificial man is a reminder of the creation of the Monster; a large footprint in which Ana’s tiny shoe is dwarfed suggests Boris Karloff’s huge, asphalt-spreader’s boots, and the fleeing resistance fighter — whom she unwittingly betrays to a quiet, gun-toting mob as dangerous as the torch-bearing peasantry of Universal’s horror films — is a kindred spirit to the gentle, pained big baby of film and folklore. The snippet from Frankenstein which most impresses the girls is the lakeside vignette between the Monster and the little girl, which ends with poor Maria’s semi-accidental drowning. Whale’s scene is recreated in the eerily delicate finale of Spirit as Ana’s reflection in a pool ripples to be replaced by that of the Monster, who gently joins her for a communion which ends not in death but an awakening.
Choosing to inhabit entirely Ana’s world, Erice only hints at what passes between Ana and the Monster. The rest of the heroine’s family seem locked into a Bergmanesque rut, the father toiling amid his hives, the mother (Teresa Gimpera — fresh from the title role in Hannah: Queen Of The Vampires) writing to an exile in France, Isabel playing mean games with the cat and faking her own death. Ana, whose personality is as unformed as that of Karloff’s creature, is freer than these sad souls, and the only person in the film seen often in motion. While everyone focuses on still-life obsessions, Ana is forever examining and being intrigued by things, blowing into a funnel of bees, turning over rocks, peering directly at the audience.
Originally, the film was to have a 1970s frame-story with the grown-up Ana returning to her village and reconciling with her dying father, but Erice decided this would only serve to tidy up the drama, emphasising soap opera over childish magic. Young Ana Torrent carries the film with a remarkable, honest performance — perhaps the best work ever done by a child actor — as a little girl at odds with her reality, but solemnly determined to fathom the mysteries around her. Torrent’s huge, expressive eyes dominate the film, and her final line (“Yo soy, Ana”/“It’s me, Ana”) carries a great weight of emotion. She became sought-after for similar roles (in Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos) in the ’70s, and continues to act as an adult — notably as the sleuth heroine of Alejandro Amenábar’s first film, Tesis, but also in Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper series and as Katharine Of Aragon in the forthcoming The Other Boleyn Girl.
At the time of the film’s release, Erice — who has not subsequently been prolific — said that he would like to return to Ana’s story in 30 years, to see what manner of adult she became, suggesting that he too was mystified by the qualities Torrent brought to the role. There’s still time to make that sequel.