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The kids and the Whale: An unprolific Spanish perfectionist's monstrously dreamy debut

Spanish master Víctor Erice graduated from film school in the early 1960s, and has since earned a living writing criticism, directing television, and filming commercials. He has made only three features in the last 33 years, debuting with The Spirit of the Beehive in 1973, and taking roughly a decade between movies thereafter. Apparently his compulsions apply more to perfection than process. In the U.S. Erice has always been a negligible figure, but in the U.K. Beehive and 1992's Quince Tree of the Sun are routinely remembered as two of the greatest films ever made. In any case, Beehive remains arguably the finest and most beautifully wrought first film of the European '70s, a mysterious crucible as elusive, concrete, and visually primal as anything by Herzog, Straub, Olmi, or Denis. But it is also an unashamedly symbol-drunk piece of work; as if shopworking with folklore that doesn't exist, Erice insists through his visuals that everything, even the vast, furrowed Castilian plains themselves, signifies emotional intangibles. Set in post–Civil War 1940, the movie dreamily documents a rural village's quotidian, but does it so elliptically that, as is the vogue in recent Asian cinema, half the story and all of the backstory must be sought at the movie's fringes, between its scenes, and in its silent ruminations.

The connections among Beehive's central family—two ebony-eyed young sisters Ana and Isabel (Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería), a distracted, love-letter-writing mother (Teresa Gimpera), an older, beekeeping father (Latin cinema vet Fernando Fernán Gómez)—aren't even apparent until deep in the film. Instead, precedence is given to the overbearing call-and-answer between earth and sky, and to the arrival in town of a traveling projectionist and an old, dubbed copy of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). For the girls, the film's fierce oddness, experienced in a cinema-poor context, is electric, but it rhymes with the world as they see it—stretching away from them in every direction, rife with unclear connections, treacherously inhabited by images that belie their own meaning. Mushrooms, family snapshots (clues to Mom's forlornness), the motivations of grown-ups, a dead body, the movie image itself: Everything disguises its true nature, and Erice's implicit idea, that childhood is a process by which we understand the lies of life, is nearly as harrowing as the scale of the landscape in contrast to its pint-sized heroines.

Spirited away: Torrent and Tellería
photo: Janus Films
Spirited away: Torrent and Tellería

Details

The Spirit of the Beehive
Directed by Victor Erice
Janus, January 27 through February 2, Film Forum

Naturally, the phobic scene in Frankenstein when the monster confronts a flower-picking girl by the pond continuously haunts Ana's worldview—in the crayon-drawn opening credits, in her dreams, and when a wounded fugitive with large feet appears in an abandoned barn. Shot in an unforgettably jaundiced twilight (the cinematographer, Luis Cuadrado, was reportedly going blind during the shoot, and killed himself in 1980), Beehive is a graceful and potent lyric on children's vulnerable hunger, but it's also a sublime study on cinema's poetic capacity to reflect and hypercharge reality. Virtually everything about it is iconic, from Erice's perspective-assault imagery to Torrent herself, who with just two appearances ( Beehive and Carlos Saura's Cría Cuervos) became a new cineastic generation's totem of fearless innocence.

 
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