Set in a tiny rural village sometime in the early 1940s, Spirit of the Beehive is first the story of a quiet seven-year-old girl named Ana (Ana Torrent), who along with her older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) attends a screening of Universal's 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. This is a watershed moment for Ana, who becomes obsessed with the famous moment in which the monster accidentally drowns a young girl in a pond, and with the monster's own firey demise. When she asks her sister about these moments later with all the candor of a young child suddenly aware of the existence of death, Isabel first claims that it's all faked for the cameras, but then in a sleepily thoughtless moment suggests that the monster was real, and he didn't really die; instead, his spirit lives and has come to settle in that very corner of Spain in an old barn, where he will appear to trustworthy little children and be their friend. This offhand bit of nonsense, obviously concocted by Isabel to impress her little sister and more importantly, to shut her up, has a seismic effect on the little girl; when a wounded Republican fugitive (Juan Margallo) finds his way into the barn to hide from the Francoist police, Ana is convinced that she has finally managed to summon up the monster's spirit, and her already thin ability to distinguish reality from fantasy is quietly but firmly demolished.
As the film was released in the final years of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, and set during that regime's first period of consolidated power, the initial Thing To Do was regard Erice's film as a commentary on the Francoist state, and of course that is something one could do. According to the traditional model, each of the characters is metaphorically representational, with the girls' parents (Fernando Fernán Gómez and Teresa Gimpera) standing in for oppression and submission, the titular beehive representing conformity and Ana representing the ability for the thoughtful mind to rise above conformity, and goodly things like that. This is, beyond question, a completely fair and illuminating way to view the film, but it reminds me of something Roger Ebert once said in a Great Movies review:
"I have heard theories that Federico Fellini's 'La Dolce Vita' catalogs the seven deadly sins, takes place on the seven hills of Rome, and involves seven nights and seven dawns, but I have never looked into them, because that would reduce the movie to a crossword puzzle."Leave the political allegory to a film like Pan's Labyrinth (where it's only somewhat successful, largely because it's so unavoidable, and I believe this helps to make my point). To my mind (and judging from the general consensus of the criticism greeting the film's re-release in early 2007, I am merely parroting the new Thing To Do), Spirit of the Beehive ought not be viewed as anything deeper than what it is: a most exceptional vision of the inner life of a child just learning about the darker complexities of life. To quote again from Ebert, it is exactly about what it seems to be about.
What the film is about, most obviously, is the pace of life in a tiny corner of the world; the pacing is notoriously slow (if notorious is indeed the word), and several long minutes crawl by occupied in nothing but the business of observation, watching children walking into a school building, watching a family eating, watching a man checking on the bees in his apiary. This is praise, not criticism, by the way. That slowness may be superficially boring, but it's exactly what opens up Ana's world to us, comprised of nothing but what most of us would consider little routine moments. Except that to a little girl of six or seven, there's no such thing as "routine"; she's too guileless for that. When one is young enough, nothing is so quotidian that it lacks interest, and The Spirit of the Beehive is, I believe, above all things a cinematic attempt to remind the adult viewer of that perspective, if not necessarily to regress the viewer to that point. Hence the superfluity of protracted, almost actionless takes; stare at anything for long enough, and it starts to become tremendously fascinating. In this, Erice is "tricking" our minds, so to speak, in reaching the point that his heroine finds herself in by nature.
Perhaps this also explains the film's justly celebrated cinematography by Luis Cuadrado, just then starting to suffer from the fading eyesight that would end in blindness and suicide, seven years later, at the age of 45. Not outside the work of Terrence Malick will you find a motion picture so happily devoted to the golden hour as this; every exterior shot is bathed in misty autumnal hues that call to mind the look of an old color photograph starting to yellow with age. It's the look of nostalgia; it is also the look of a dream where life is eternal afternoon (what time of the day is most beloved to the child?). It's terribly easy to head to that idiotic cliché of "dreamlike" filmmaking (I know it's one of my bigger faults), but sometimes it's just so inevitably right to use that word, and it is the perfect word for this film, with imagery which could only be properly called magical (particularly the moments when Ana sees the monster (José Villasante) in what we might almost call hallucinations, if not for the sincerity with which they were filmed).
This all hinges on the figure of Ana, and it is right that Torrent - the rare child actor whose career has continued to the modern day - is so perfect for the role. I cannot in good faith say that she was a brilliant actor, for it's not really acting that we're watching; it's simply being the character, and Torrent's wide set eyes and serious face invite, nay demand, a protectiveness for the girl that lapses readily into identification. She is among the most appealing child performers in cinema history, and among the most believable, and between these things she provides Spirit of the Beehive with the kind of sincerely childish base that it requires to succeed as marvelously as it does in implicating our viewpoint to that of a naïve little girl.
Because of all this, the film is ultimately a tragedy, for it is after all a story of the end of the innocence of childhood. When the fugitive is caught and killed, Ana takes the first step from youthful faith into the unforgiving world of reason, and for a short time it drives her insane. When she emerges, it's not entirely clear that this is the same Ana; the film's last shots suggest that the girl's imagination can no longer render death as a fantastic concept, and that her romantic attachment to the dream of Frankenstein's monster is over. As she stands against a window, silhouetted, is it not more harsh than warm? Though, like every other image in the film, it's beautiful, it is the beauty of...well, of an art film's final shot, not a postcard from childhood. For the first time, there is something austere in Ana's life, and in its quite subtle way, it is disturbing and terrifying, suggesting that growing up isn't something that it's all that easy to recover from.