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SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, THE (Espíritu de la colmena, El) (director/writer: Victor Erice; screenwriters: Francisco J. Querejeta/Angel Fernandez Santos; cinematographer: Luis Cuadrado; editor: Pablo Gonzalez del Amo; music: Luis de Pablo; cast: Fernando Fernan Gomez (Fernando), Teresa Gimpera (Teresa), Ana Torrent (Ana); Isabel Telleria (Isabel), Laly Soldevila (Milagro), Miguel Picazo (Doctor), Juan Francisco Margallo (the Fugitive), Jose Villasante (the Monster); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Elias Querejeta; Criterion; 1973-Spain-in Spanish with English subtitles)
“Considered by many as one of the key Spanish films of the Seventies.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Victor Erice (“El Sur”/”Ten Minutes Older–The Trumpet”/”Quince Tree of the Sun”) is the Spanish cowriter and director of this wonderfully haunting moody allegorical film that is a childhood drama that captures a realistic depiction of life in the early years of the Franco dictatorship and how it takes the innocence of a child to see through the deceptions created by adults. It’s Erice’s film debut, filmed at the end of the Franco regime, and is considered by many as one of the key Spanish films of the Seventies. The plotless but absorbing film is magically written by cowriters Francisco J. Querejeta and Angel Fernandez Santos. Erice has made few pictures, preferring to write and direct on TV rather than work on a film project he doesn’t believe in.

“Beehive” tells the tale of two sisters, the imaginative and impressionable eight-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) and the more realistic and mischievous ten-year-old Isabel (Isabel Telleria), in 1940, just after the Spanish Civil War and General Franco’s fascist victory. They are living in a small, almost deserted Castilian village, in a gated manor that was spared from destruction by the war. The sisters live with their pre-occupied by day bee-keeping father Fernando (Fernando Fernan Gomez), who at night writes poems about the bees, and their lonely forlorn mother Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), who writes mysterious letters to a lover now living abroad. Most of the time the girls are left alone, except for the one time their father takes them on a mushroom hunt.

A traveling film exhibitor shows the 1931 dubbed in Spanish version of James Whale’s Frankenstein to the village in town hall, and the sisters attend. Ana is fascinated by the monster, but doesn’t understand why the monster killed the little girl or why the monster was killed by the villagers. Isabel says movies are fake and no one died, that the monster is an invisible spirit who can be evoked by calling out for him and that he’s living in a nearby well by an abandoned run-down farm. Ana visits after school, but doesn’t see the monster. When she visits again, there’s a fugitive soldier who jumped from a train and is living in the abandoned farm. She imagines he’s Frankenstein (he has large feet) and befriends him and brings him an apple, her father’s leather coat, his watch and shoes. The soldiers kill him that night, and the missing stuff is returned to Ana’s father. Ana is disappointed in her father and runs away in the woods to search for the monster’s spirit, and is not found until the next day by a search party in a weakened condition. But she still believes in finding the monster’s spirit, and in the last shot calls out at night from her bedroom window: “I am Ana. I am Ana.”

The desperate life of the villagers is seen as a wasteland compared with the bustling but futile activity of the beehive, in which the father diligently studies their mysteries. It’s only through the sensitive eyes of the little Ana, who can still believe in finding good in a world that is constantly at war, that there remains the sliver of hope. She can still envision that something good will come of all the despair, darkness and unhappiness that engulfs her community, as she thinks more kindly of the monster than her spiritually dead community and she still believes in her dreams.

It’s stunningly shot in a dreamlike way with subdued color by Luis Cuadrado, who was going blind during filming and killed himself when he went blind in the 1980s.

The movie only asks us to believe in the little girl’s quest and not if the quest is real. It was easy to do that, and therefore easy to see why the film was so mesmerizing, beautifully endowed with the child’s search for the truth, and powerfully rich in its understated symbolic depictions of the political situation.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”