I once showed a dozen or so classic non-American films to students at the Royal College of Art. To my surprise, despite the fact that the list included the work of such world-renowned directors as Luis Buñuel, Satyajit Ray and Kenji Mizoguchi, the film they fell in love with was Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. They rightly thought it close to magic. It is one of the most beautiful and arresting films ever made in Spain, or anywhere in the past 25 years or so.
Set in the Castillian countryside around 1940, when Franco had won the civil war but was still hunting down republican sympathisers, and made in 1973 when it was necessary for Spanish film-makers to cloak their political messages in allegory, it has an eight-year-old girl called Ana, superbly played by Ana Torrent, as its central character.
She watches James Whale’s Frankenstein at the local cinema and can’t understand why Frankenstein kills the little girl he meets and seems to cherish by the lakeside. Her elder sister, Isabel (Isabel Telleria), explains that nobody actually dies in movies. But she adds that the monster is really a spirit who can take on human form and can be summoned up by closing your eyes and calling out: “I’m Ana”. She has seen him in a deserted outhouse near the village.
Ana is detemined to invoke the spirit. Going across the deserted fields to the outhouse, she finds a republican fugitive and brings him clothes and food. For her, he is Frankenstein and even though he is shot by the civil guard, she is certain spirits don’t die and dreams that she meets him, like the little girl in Whale’s film. Brought back home by her distracted parents and put to bed, she goes to her bedroom window and whispers: “I’m Ana, I’m Ana.”
The film can be construed in many ways but is, above all, an almost perfect summation of childhood imaginings. It is also about the pall Franco’s long shadow left over Spain. Ana’s father, played with understated power by Fernando Fernan Gomez, has evidently been traumatised by the civil war and is a shadowy figure writing a treatise on beekeeping while his wife writes letters to a would-be lover, exiled in France. They are a family “locked up in themselves”, unable to avoid the terrible emotional consequences of the civil war and the absolute triumph of dictatorship.
The film is thus cloaked in quiet and sadness, through which its children move almost as if in a dreamworld of their own. It is brilliantly shot by the great Luis Cuadrado in atmospherically muted colours: the series of dissolves with which he denotes the passing of time outside the makeshift cinema where the children see Frankenstein provides one stunning sequence, but there are many.
Few know that Cuadrado was going blind at the time, which makes his work all the more remarkable. There is also a memorable score from Luis de Pablo, which sums up everything while underlining nothing. It is virtually impossible to get the sight and sound of the film out of one’s mind after watching it.
But, of course, it is chiefly Erice’s film – a perfectly controlled and imagined first feature so painstakingly made that Elias Querejeta, one of Spain’s most enlightened producers, worried that it would never be completed. To date, Erice has made only two more films: South, which is merely half a story, never completed, and The Quince Tree Sun, one of the most extraordinary films about painting ever conceived. He is now working on another one, late as usual.