The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la colmena) takes place in a Castilian village in 1940. The Spanish Civil War has ended but the stink still hangs in the air, the specter of mechanized death barreling through in the form of a black locomotive as the inhabitants mourn their private losses. Primarily told from the perspective of a little girl, the film explores her dreamy desire to make sense of her world by creating her own Frankenstein monster.
The catalyst is a screening of the film Frankenstein, brought into the village by a traveling projectionist, another intrusion from the outside world. Six-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) and her older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) eagerly absorb the images, with Ana particularly taken by the most unsettling scene: the monster meets a little girl by a stream, throws flowers into the water, and then, running out of flowers and not understanding the nature of their game, throws her in as well. That night, lying in bed, Ana asks Isabel about the monster. Isabel says it is a spirit, it wears its body like clothes, and can be evoked with the words, “Soriana, Soriana.” You can talk to it if it is your friend.
Torrent conveys emotional complexities in what is essentially a story about a child realizing death—the curiosity and sadness skirting horror, gliding into uncertain acceptance. Director Víctor Erice encourages another evocative performance from Tellería, who gives Isabel a mischievous, vaguely menacing air. In an extended sequence, Isabel fakes her own death. Ana, concerned but uncomprehending, walks around her family’s estate looking for help, the camerawork recalling the menace of Kubrick’s famous steadicam in The Shining. When she returns, Isabel’s body is gone. Ana stares out the window, trying to evoke the spirit, and Isabel creeps up behind her.
Ana goes on to befriend and care for an escaped soldier who is hiding out in the abandoned house. After unseen executors shoot him, Ana attempts to run away through the woods, and learns how to invoke another sort of “spirit.” Coming to a melancholy understanding of life’s random potential for joy and sorrow—as when the Frankenstein monster switches from playing with to killing a child—Ana discovers her own spirit.
Indeed, she spends much of her time on her own. Her father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) owns the titular beehive. It is constructed of glass and located in his den; he struggles to explain it to himself, writing each night at his desk. Her mother (Teresa Gimpera) writes letters to a lover who may be dead. Both parents skirt along the edge of the film, emotionally distant and consumed by past tragedies, prisoners in a house with windowpanes that are diamond-shaped and honey-colored. Cinematographer Luis Cuadrado shoots the house so that the golden sunlight spills onto the interior with aching intensity.
In these painterly images, in the astounding gradations of wheat and amber colors, as well as his patient working methods (three films in the past 30 years) and languid pace, Erice’s work recalls that of Terrence Malick. But Erice’s lyricism doesn’t evoke a sense of wonder. The Spirit of the Beehive is about a child overcoming wonder. What makes the film so gorgeously affecting is its depiction of a difficult intensity beneath a placid surface, where emotional extremes take on a supernatural aura and hover in the chest.