#85 (tie): 'The Spirit of the Beehive': The Reveal discusses all 100 of Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time
A screening of 'Frankenstein' profoundly reshapes the development of a six-year-old girl in Victor Erice's gorgeous allegorical fantasy set in Franco's Spain.
On December 1st, 2022, Sight & Sound magazine published “The Greatest Films of All Time,” a poll that’s been updated every 10 years since Bicycle Thieves topped the list in 1952. It is the closest thing movies have to a canon, with each edition reflecting the evolving taste of critics and changes in the culture at large. It’s also a nice checklist of essential cinema. Over the course of many weeks, months, and (likely) years, we’re running through the ranked list in reverse order and digging into the films as deep as we can. We hope you will take this journey with us.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
Dir. Victor Erice
Ranking: #85 (tie)
Previous rankings: #84 (2012).
Premise: In a remote Castilian village in 1940—the year after Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces seized power, ending the Spanish Civil War—a traveling movie exhibitor arrives to screen the 1933 film Frankenstein. The audience includes the six-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) and her older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) and the film makes a particularly deep impression on Ana, who’s confused about why the Monster throws a young girl in a lake and is subsequently killed by villagers. Isabel informs her that the movie is pretend, then goes on to say the Monster is real, a spirit that lives away from people but is willing to communicate with its friends. Ana searches for the spirit in a remote, abandoned sheepfold. Later, when a wounded Republican resistance fighter takes up shelter there, she tends to him. Elsewhere in their large, quiet home Isabel and Ana’s mother Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) writes to a lover and their father Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez) tends to his bees.
Keith: In Monte Hellman’s final film Road to Nowhere (underrated and waiting to be rediscovered), a director (Tygh Runyan) shows the lead (Shannyn Sossamyn) of his latest movie some of his favorite films in their downtime, including Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, which they watch in bed. Hellman lets Spirit’s final scene play out almost in full. When it ends, the director exhales deeply, shakes his head and says, “A fucking masterpiece.” I’m fighting the temptation to do that too and just end the conversation there. Not that there’s not plenty to talk about with Spirit of the Beehive, but it’s such a delicate, elusive film that I don’t want to say anything to diminish that with a reductive reading. It’s a small movie in scale and tremendous in the mysteries it touches upon.
The Spirit of the Beehive is a film about life under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco made when such films were forbidden in Spain. Erice smuggles in his critique sideways, but it’s hard to miss. It’s a political film that ends with Ana calling on the spirit, which she’s come to associate with the Republican soldier. His death has, it would appear, opened her eyes to the role her father is playing in the new order, as seen by his passive cooperation with the police when they return his watch. Whether Fernando approves of Franco or not, he feels he has to go along. I don’t think it’s insignificant that the protagonist of the film is the same age as a generation that was coming into its own political power.
But I also think there’s more going on here beyond the film’s politics and instinctively recoil at readings that would turn the film into a straightforward allegory, like those found on its Wikipedia page. (I know, I know.) For example: “Ana represents the innocent young generation of Spain around 1940, while her sister Isabel's deceitful advice symbolizes the Nationals (the Nationalist faction soldiers led by Franco, and their supporters), accused of being obsessed with money and power.” Maybe? I’m no expert on this period of Spanish history, but this doesn’t seem like a film interested in offering a simple one-to-one symbolic code for audiences to crack.
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That’s in part because much of the film remains close to Ana, who has a limited understanding but a probing imagination. She may not quite follow the plot of Frankenstein but she understands it’s tapping into some greater mystery. When I first saw this film, it seemed above all about a child coming to understand death. Erice’s long takes and his use of light give it a dreamlike feeling appropriate to a child exploring a world she wants to comprehend, and the bitterness of some of the discoveries she makes.
It’s also a film with mysteries of its own, some of them introduced in scenes where Ana remains off stage. Who was Teresa writing to? Was it the soldier Ana finds? What is Isabel doing with the cat or when she fakes her own death? They can’t be answered. They can only be contemplated in a film that emphasizes such moments over narrative (though it’s not without one).
Scott, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this film. Is it an act of protest? A meditation on childhood? These don’t seem like they ought to be compatible (though other directors have certainly taken their cues from this film, as I’m sure we’ll discuss later on). Is it the cinematic equivalent of a floor wax that’s also a dessert topping?
Scott: A floor wax that’s also a dessert topping? This is how we get subscriptions to explode here on The Reveal: Hit our readers with references to mid-1970s Saturday Night Live sketches. But hey, I guess it’s a little apropos, given how Erice’s film pursues multiple agendas at once. But then again, I’d argue that the politics of the film are not incompatible with its understanding of childhood, because Erice is so sharply attuned to how changes in the real world quietly permeate and shape the direction of Ana’s life. We may not leave the film with Ana understanding everything she needs to know as an adult, but she has experienced a trauma that may stay with her long after her doctor predicts it will.
I hate to pull the “as a father of daughters” card here—and the father of one daughter named Isabel, no less, though my Isabel is less deceitful with her younger sister—but one thing you often think about as a parent is how much you kid does know or should know about the adult world. You are constantly deciding when and how to protect them, but you also don’t want them to be too naive or as confused and directionless as Ana is here. The other piece of this is how much you realize (or don’t) what they’re experiencing anyway, regardless of whether you have decided to expose them to something or not. If there are tensions within a marriage, as there are in Fernando and Teresa’s partnership here, I feel like the tenor of the household changes accordingly, even if the parents have decided never to fight in front of the children. You often hear about unhappy couples who stay together for the kids’ benefit, but how good can they be at masking that unhappiness?
You skipped to the ending in your first missive to me, so let me flash back to the beginning. Between the “Once upon a time…” framing and the idyllic beauty of this small village in the ’40s, Erice has us expecting a nostalgia piece. And as a movie lover, how can you not be roused by the sight of excited children following a truck full of equipment and film canisters as it winds through the streets, with a man hyping it as the best film they’ve ever shown. It’s like a traveling carnival. The screening facility is just a small room with white concrete walls and a crude frame to mask the image, and everyone brings their own chairs, with the kids rushing to get as close to the image as possible. Before Frankenstein starts, an announcer on screen touts the film as addressing “the greatest mysteries of creation, life and death” but also advising the audience “not to take it too seriously.” That’s a difficult request for anyone, but for a six-year-old who can’t yet parse the difference between fantasy and reality, it’s impossible.
That this same theater space will later host the dead body of the Republican soldier is no accident on Erice’s part, particularly given how heavily he leans on symbolism and allegory throughout. When you’re trying to smuggle a politically loaded film like The Spirit of the Beehive through Franco-era censors, you have to be a little indirect about what you’re trying to say. (Though it’s not that indirect. All the business with the wounded soldier who hides out in a sheepfold, gets food and clothing from Ana and then gets shot to death in the same place by machine guns makes the historical good guys and bad guys extremely clear.) But one of the things I loved about Erice’s approach is how much he crosscuts between multiple scenes at once: As we see Ana and Isabel watching Frankenstein, we also get glimpses at Fernando tending to his beloved beehives and Teresa penning letters to lover that she tosses on a train as if it were a bottle in the vast ocean. Here’s a family where the members exist apart from each other and the style of the film reinforces that.
In fact, I kept track of the number of times we see Fernando and Teresa together. There’s a scene reasonably early where Teresa pretends to be asleep as her husband gets ready for bed, but we only see her head on the pillow over a long take. Not until 45 minutes in does Teresa address Fernando directly, tossing him his hat from the balcony above. We don’t see them together again until the 77-minute mark when the family sits down to dinner, but Erice cuts to each individual person, never to any two in the same frame. Only at the end of the film do we get the mercy of Teresa gently placing a pillow under her husband’s head after he falls asleep at his desk. It’s a hopeful sign that maybe not all feeling is lost between them.
So Keith, Frankenstein the movie figures heavily into this movie, of course, and as the Universal monster movie expert, I wanted to ask you why you thought this film had a particular resonance to Erice and how these two films are in conversation. What does The Monster signify for Ana and why does she ultimately turn to its spirit in the end rather than anyone within her own family?
Keith: Watching Frankenstein, Ana locks into the tremendous sympathy director James Whale and Boris Karloff create for The Monster, particularly in its most tragic scene. He tosses poor Maria in the water not out of malice but because he wants to see her float, like the little flowers she’s throwing into the lake. They’re pretty, she’s pretty, ergo she should also float. Like Ana, he has an incomplete understanding of the world, and no real concept of death. I think she sees a kindred spirit in him, as suggested by the moment by the lake when her reflection gives way to his, which I’m not sure on a practical level how Erice and cinematographer Luis Cuadrado pulled off. (Cuadrado, by the way, was losing his eyesight due to a brain tumor while making this movie.)
As for why she calls on him in the end, I think The Monster and the soldier have become conflated in her mind. Both are outcasts and both ultimately fall victim to overwhelming force—Nationalist soldiers in the Republican’s case, a pitchfork-wielding mob in the Monster’s. And both, to Ana, are acts of injustice, a concept she becomes acquainted with over the course of the film, like death. Or at least that’s how I read it. All this might still be completely beyond her understanding in a film that’s just about the confusion of being a child, but I think it’s ultimately the story of an awakening conscience. It reminds me of Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House? in that sense.
None of this is stated outright, but part of the wonder of the film is that it doesn’t have to have its characters say out loud what they’re feeling for us to understand it. Case in point: the scene where Ana and Isabel put their ears to the track to listen for an approaching train then watch as it passes by. Ana never says she’s realizing for the first time she could die, that few inches separate her from getting flattened by the locomotive. But she doesn’t have to. It’s evident in her expression. This apparently wasn’t always so. Earlier versions of Erice and Ángel Fernández-Santos’ script featured narration from an adult Ana, which would have drastically altered the film.
There are a few points where a little background is helpful, however. Paul Julian Smith’s Criterion essay clears up a couple of details that I didn’t fully understand. For instance, a picture of Fernando in the album Ana peruses places him next to Miguel de Unamuno, a critic of Franco. Not knowing what that suggests of his political sympathies, it’s possible to see him, as I did on a first watch, as a Franco sympathizer rather than a leftist in quiet retreat. He also notes, to build on a point you were making, that even in the dinner scene we never see all four family members in the same frame.
Erice, now 83, followed The Spirit of the Beehive with El Sur ten years later (which I still need to see) and the great documentary The Quince Tree Sun in 1992. His Close Your Eyes (whose cast includes Torrent, now 57) was extremely well-received at Cannes, though it hasn’t made it here yet. That’s a short filmography but I see Erice’s influence all over the place thanks to this film. Its long takes and focus on children remind me of Kiarostami (with whom Erice collaborated on an experimental film of some kind called Víctor Erice: Abbas Kiarostami. Correspondencias). I’m not sure Days of Heaven is quite the same film without The Spirit of the Beehive’s influence. But its DNA is especially evident in two Guillermo del Toro films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Both are films about children living just before or just after Franco’s ascent that incorporate elements of horror and fantasy, though del Toro’s films bring in quite a bit more.
Scott, I must be missing some Erice descendants, right? And let’s talk a bit more about those long takes. As with the film’s ambiguity, Erice puts a lot of faith in his viewers to stay focused and to be attentive to subtle changes. When Isabel fakes her death, it’s not immediately clear what’s going on. But as the scene progresses, Isabel finds it increasingly difficult to keep the act up. We see through it even if Ana doesn’t. The scene has to be that long to work, but it’s kind of daring to play it out at that length, isn’t it?
Scott: It’s definitely daring! I hadn’t seen this film since my binge-mode undergraduate days, so I was very much in Ana’s spot during that scene, wondering if Isabel was pulling another prank or if something had happened to her. Her staging of the scene is quite convincing, as is her discipline in playing dead for as long as she does. Isabel does not know until late in the film, when Ana goes missing, the impact that her mischief has had on her little sister’s mind. And while it’s perhaps inevitable that a child will eventually grow more cognizant of the adult world, Ana’s experience is genuinely traumatizing and the ending, beautiful as it is, strikes me as bleak.
I think you’re correct to cite Del Toro as the filmmaker most directly influenced by The Spirit of the Beehive, though here’s where I confess, with a little shame, that Del Toro’s allegorical/historical fantasies are the films of his I tend to like least. (Pan’s Labyrinth excepted, mostly.) Erice certainly hits you with a lot of symbolism—those honeycombed windows on the house are emphasized quite often—but there’s a delicacy to Erice’s work here that often eludes Del Toro, who tends to foreground the historical elements too strongly for my taste. Or maybe there’s just more elegance to Erice’s simplicity, like the way Ana’s father and the Republican soldier are, at different points in the narrative, conflated with Frankenstein’s Monster in her mind.
I love what you said about that scene between The Monster and the little girl in the original film, and I’m actually a little curious about why Erice opted against showing that The Monster did not mean to harm the girl as he does. Ana appears to have the film literacy to recognize a misunderstood creature when she sees him, which allows her to approach its supposed real-life existence with more curiosity than fear. She learns that the people who have real power in this situation—her father, the soldiers who gun down the wounded rebel soldier (superb use of offscreen space there)—are the ones who should really concern her. And we can see from the distance she puts between herself and everyone else in the end that the mistrust lingers.
There are plenty of other family dynamics in future films—The Ice Storm springs to mind—that deploy a similar strategy of cross-cutting between individuals within a family and very rarely show them occupying the same space or frame. But I also thought quite a bit of Steven Spielberg, given how much Ana’s eyes tell the story here. She’s a curious girl, but not especially articulate, so Erice and Cuadrado linger on those big eyes of hers to observe and respond to the action. Spielberg and Erice both seem to understand childhood as a passive, liminal state where a girl like Ana is subject to forces that can leave an outsized impression on her developing mind. The eyes reflect a child’s vulnerability and impressionability.
Can I spare a moment to talk about how beautiful this film is to look at? The fact that Cuadrado was losing his eyesight during production is poignant but also a little unfair to cinematographers who have perfect vision and would envy what he was able to accomplish here. The natural exteriors and magic-hour lighting certainly do plenty of work here—God remains the best gaffer, though He is not unionized—but the framing of those long shots across the fields into the horizon is so lovely and the way the sun peeks out in a long streak above the hillside suggest the idyllic quality of rural Castile. Perhaps the innocence of this locale is being threatened, too.
Any final thoughts here, Keith? Where does Erice leave us with this girl and her parents and perhaps the country in the end? When you think about this movie again five or 10 or 20 years from now, what do you suspect will be the moment that stands out most for you?
Keith: I don’t read the ending as bleak. I see it as kind of hopeful. As I touched on above, if Ana was six in 1940 she’d be approaching 40 in 1973. She was of the first generation to not really know a Spain that was under Franco, but she could be among the generation that would change it. I think it’s a case where the word “spirit” has a couple of meanings. It’s the soldier/Monster creature that’s come to mean so much to her but also the spirit of what he represents, which is out there for those who would summon it. (Although maybe it means something entirely different in Spanish. I always had a hard time with other languages in school.)
This is actually my second time watching Spirit of the Beehive this year and, in my experience at least, it doesn’t ever lose its power to surprise. I know what’s going to happen in any given scene, but the way Erice and Cuadrado film it is breathtaking every time: the light filtered through those honeycomb windows, the expression on the Monster’s face, Ana’s eyes… I’m going to turn into that Monte Hellman character if I don’t stop. How about you?
Scott: I love the darkness of the sheepfold, with its two open doorways leading to the unknown—an effective, multi-purpose use of offscreen space. At various points, it beckons a terrifying curiosity from Ana, whether the Monster might be inside or the bloodstains left from the soldier she’d been helping. We also never talked about the scene where Isabel wraps her hands around the black cat and starts to strangle it, an experiment in adult violence that we will revisit to much longer and more graphic effect when we reach Satantango at #78. (Isabel using the blood from the cat scratch as lipstick cements that associate between violence and “maturity.”) And finally, let me heave a deep sigh of nostalgia over the kids excitedly welcoming a truck delivering celluloid canisters to the local makeshift movie house. I just don’t see that happening with DCP.
We should note that The Spirit of the Beehive is only streaming on Criterion Channel. But you and I will have to turn to our physical media archive for the next one…
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