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Synopsis: Ana is a small girl growing up in a remote Spanish village during the early Forties. Her father Fernando is a beekeeper and a writer frequently given to reverie. Her mother Teresa writes letters to an apparently fictitious lover who now lives abroad. When a traveling film exhibitor shows the 1931 version of Frankenstein in the village cinema, Ana is fascinated by the film. Her sister Isabel tells her that the Frankenstein monster is a spirit who can be evoked by calling out for him. Ana returns alone to an isolated barn where she and her sister routinely play, only to encounter a stranger, evidently a fugitive, that she believes is Frankenstein.
One of the key Spanish films of the Seventies and a masterpiece of European cinema in general, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) was the feature film debut for director Victor Erice. The symbol-laden work is often considered a coded commentary on life in the authoritarian Franco regime, which was marked by isolationism and the persecution of political "enemies." But Erice's film is far richer than a mere political tract, with its acute rendering of everyday village life and its unique vision of the world of childhood imagination. Luis Cuadrado's cinematography is remarkable for its subdued color scheme and its painterly lighting effects, especially in the interiors of the family residence, which are bathed in golden light. (Cuadrado was reportedly going blind during this period and committed suicide in the 1980s.) But the aspect which seems to have stayed with viewers the most is the extraordinary performance of child actress Ana Torrent in the lead role.
Ana Torrent (born 1966) played a bit part in the film One Day After August (1968) while still only a toddler, but it was her role in The Spirit of the Beehive that brought international attention. Arguably, her most indelible performance--and one of the all-time great child performances in film--was in Carlos Saura's masterpiece Cria Cuervos (1976), where she played a young girl, haunted by the death of her mother, who decides to poison her father, a philandering military officer in the Franco regime. In that film, Geraldine Chaplin plays both the mother and Ana as a grown woman. In a similar vein, Saura cast Torrent again as Geraldine Chaplin's younger self in Elisa, Vida Mia (1977). Given her corner on the market of dark-hued child roles, it seems only fitting that fellow Spaniard Alejandro Amenabar would choose her to star many years later in his debut feature, the creepily effective thriller Thesis (1996). More recently, the actress has appeared in Peter Greenaway's ambitious new project, the multi-part series entitled The Tulse Luper Suitcases.
In an interview with author Peter Besas, the director Erice recalls: "I discovered Ana Torrent on the very first day that I started looking for girls to do the main parts in the film. I went to a school very close to where the production office is. [...] There were far more children than I expected to see, all running about, so it was difficult to concentrate on any given one. However, I was in luck. Because the first girl I noticed was Ana Torrent. She was in a corner, playing by herself. I talked to her for a while. She seemed perfect. It was odd: the first girl on the first day."
Director Victor Erice (b. 1940) has made comparatively few films since The Spirit of the Beehive, his feature film debut. He first attracted attention with his surreal and violent episode in the Elias Querejeta-produced omnibus film, Los desafios (1969). Erice's second feature, El Sur (1983) was not only made some ten years after The Spirit of the Beehive, but it was halted mid-production due to budgetary problems. Although the second part of the story--about an hour of running time--is missing, according to Erice, it nonetheless received warm reviews when it premiered at Cannes. Certainly, it confirmed the director's gift for understated performances and beautifully composed images. Erice's most recent projects have been El Sol Del Membrillo/Dream of Light (1992), a semi-documentary portrait of a painter--likewise hailed as a masterpiece--and an episode for the international omnibus film Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (2002).
The film's producer, Elias Querejeta, has supported many cutting-edge film projects in Spain, including Erice's first two features and many films by Carlos Saura, most notably Cria Cuervos and Elisa, Vida Mia. Querejeta also co-produced Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's cult favorite The City of Lost Children (1995). The Spirit of the Beehive ultimately won the Golden Seashell at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and awards for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture from the Cinema Writers Circle in Spain.
Producer: Elias Querejeta
Director: Victor Erice
Screenplay: Francisco J. Querejeta and Angel Fernandez Santos
Director of Photography: Luis Cuadrado
Film Editor: Pablo Gonzalez del Amo
Music: Luis de Pablo
Art Direction: Adolfo Cofino
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).
by James Steffen