Most of us remember the first time we saw a horror film. It’s an indelible moment in any moviegoer’s life: The dread building in your stomach along with the music. The jolt in your bones as the monster jumped out of hiding. The relief when you realized you could hide safely behind your hands. But what about the first time you witnessed an actual act of violence? What about the first time you inflicted violence yourself? In an ideal world, these things would happen far from childhood. Unfortunately for too many of us, traumas better understood when we’re older are rarely held off until then.
Released fifty years ago this month, The Spirit of the Beehive exists in that queasy uncertainty. It’s both an artifact and an appraisal, made in the dying days of Franco’s fascist regime but set at the start of them. The first words to appear on screen after the credits are “Once upon a time,” that elixir of youth. But if this is a story of childhood, it’s one about to be robbed. The year is 1940 and the Spanish Civil War has just ended with the defeat of the leftist government. Sisters Ana and Isabel are blissfully unaware of this, living in a remote provincial village where a traveling movie show is held in the same town hall as police interrogations.
The movie that’s showing this time around is James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein. “I’d advise you not to take it too seriously,” says the emcee in the introduction, but that’s exactly what six-year-old Ana in the audience will do. She is particularly disturbed by the scene when the monster encounters a young girl beside a lake. “Why did he kill her?” she asks her older sister. “And why did they kill him?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Isabel whispers back.
It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Beehive is told from a child’s perspective, since the audience is often included in private moments of the adults to which Ana and Isabel aren’t privy. More accurate, perhaps, to say that director Victor Erice (in his debut, no less) has a remarkable grasp for the textures of childhood – its wonders, its mysteries, and also its cruelties, including those children inflict on one another. Isabel, for instance, will soon lie to Ana, telling her that Frankenstein’s monster isn’t dead. She’s seen him near an abandoned house outside the village, but he’s a spirit who only comes out at night. The repercussions of this fib will be felt through the entire family.
Erice, working with cinematographer Luis Cuadrado (who was going blind at the time), composes his shots with an eerie expansiveness that emphasizes the smallness of individuals against the world; the landscapes seem on the verge of swallowing up its inhabitants rather than opening to them. Even the adults are adrift: Teresa, the girls’ mother, is carrying on a clandestine affair with a soldier by post while father Fernando is consumed with the care of his bees. The discontent hangs over the household, never spoken of directly in dialogue but revealed in gesture and an uncanny use of space. When doors open, they only seem to lead to halls with more doors.
The symbolism of Beehive can often feel as opaque as its scenery. This was partly a tactic Erice employed to elude government censors, who reportedly allowed it to be released on the assumption that the public would reject “a slow-paced, thinly-plotted, and ‘arty’ picture.” Yet the film isn’t inaccessible. The thing about monstrousness is that it’s both impossible to comprehend and ubiquitous, particularly when living under authoritarian rule, where every citizen has the potential to turn on another. This quandary takes corporeal form when an army deserter appears in the spirit’s abandoned house one day. Ana gives him food and her father’s clothes. This will lead to consequences that are fatal for one man and possibly dangerous to another. Ana, too, must confront her own capacity for harm.
Though Beehive would go on to inspire later filmmakers – most notably Guillermo del Toro – it was not an instant success. When it was awarded the top prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival, some audience members booed and stomped their feet in protest. Until its re-release in the U.S. in 2007, it was difficult to find, its masterpiece status more rumor than fact. Contemporary critics have called it “lucid and enigmatic,” “voluptuous,” and “arresting,” but such praise feels inadequate to the spell it casts while watching it. Like a fairy tale, the film transcends the simple language used to tell it.
Despite the darkness that lies ahead for Ana and her family, The Spirit of the Beehive ends on a hopeful note. “Bit by bit she’ll begin to forget,” the doctor says of her ordeal. It’s perhaps the best a traumatized generation can hope for in the wake of unspeakable destruction. Healing is hard work, and it doesn’t always look like we expect it to, particularly in the young. But Erice knew they would find a way. “It’s me, Ana,” the girl whispers to her spirit friend in the film’s final moments, an innocent voice making itself heard in the night.
“The Spirit of the Beehive” is streaming on the Criterion Channel.