A debut feature is always tricky to look at in hindsight - from a distance, knowing what became of its director, the film may gain an entirely new slant that was either unexpected or unforeseeable at the time, resulting in a skewed reading that eschews its contemporary context. But a few of them stand out for their unique excellence, regardless of its follow-ups or its director's career. The Spirit of the Beehive, the first feature by Spanish director Victor Erice, is squarely in this category, while being something else entirely: a work that foresees everything its director would do later and encapsulates his interests and fascinations, yet standing apart in the nature of its multifaceted relationship with cinema and reality, in its textural achievement and exquisite detailing. It remains a singular moment in the European - and indeed in the world - cinema of the 1970s.

     Very little seems to happen in the course of its 90 minutes, yet there is an entire universe glimpsed inside, as mirrored (not so) metaphorically by the beehives that give the film its title, carefully nurtured by Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez). He is the patriarch of an aristocratic family that seems fallen into hard times, living in a godforsaken corner of 1940 rural Spain shortly after the end of the Civil War - a village where, beyond his own (much younger) wife and children, only the children and the elderly remain. The two children, siblings Isabel (Isabel Tellería) and Ana (Ana Torrent) are the focus of attention for Mr. Erice - and especially the way a showing of James Whale's Frankenstein put on by an itinerant projectionist feeds their imaginations, as Mary Shelley's eerie tale begins pervading her reality as they play in the desolate fields and tease each other with the possibility of a fugitive sheltering in a deserted farmhouse at the edge of the village. An entirely recognisable, drab reality thus becomes the all-too-real background the girls, and especially the younger and more susceptible Ana, use as trampoline to create their own fantasy world, never truly shown by Mr. Erice but rather suggested and shaped by a careful, painstakingly painterly eye that remains, even today, highly unusual for a debuting director.

     The Spirit of the Beehive slowly weaves a spellbinding web of images and sounds, "distant voices, still lives" to quote from the equally ravishing Terence Davies, that convey at the same time the pure innocence of childhood and its liminal border with adult cruelty, the wide-eyed engagement with a creation that becomes as real as the outside world but that is constantly threatening to overcome its borders. As Mr. Davies, Mr. Erice is working here in the interstices of historical experience and personal, human emotion, leaving visible yet unspoken the painful wounds left behind by the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing military regime that was still in charge as The Spirit of the Beehive was shot and released - all through a remarkably diffuse mood of dread and enchantment halfway between fairy tale and horror movie, one that only children could conjure effortlessly and that only adult filmmakers attuned to that unique frequency could recreate with such outstanding, delicate care. It's a masterpiece - Mr. Erice's first but by no means his only.

Cast: Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent, Isabel Tellería, Lali Soldevila, Miguel Picazo
Director: Victor Erice
Screenplay: Ángel Fernández-Santos, Mr. Erice
Cinematography: Luís Cuadrado  (colour)
Music: Luis de Pablo
Designer: Adolfo Cofiño
Editor: Pablo G. del Amo
Producer: Elías Querejeta  (Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematograficas)
Spain, 1973, 97 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, August 31st 2013


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