The Spirit of the Beehive

Spain 1973, 98 mins
Director: Victor Erice

Set in a small village in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war, Erice’s bewitching portrait of innocence, the perils of adulthood and the power of cinema is a truly sensory experience. Illuminated by a spellbinding performance from Ana Torrent as a child who is profoundly affected by a screening of Frankenstein, it’s widely regarded as one of the greatest contributions to Spanish cinema.
Jason Wood,

Victor Erice on ‘The Spirit of the Beehive’
As cinema reaches its 100th anniversary, what do you think there is left to say?

Faced with the existing inflation of images – with what Wenders has called ‘pollution of the image’ – one of the great problems we have as filmmakers today is how to give authenticity, truth, to the mass-produced image. Television daily projects thousands of images into homes throughout the world – a flood that has brought about a hypertrophy of the image. We are forced to search constantly to regain a vision of the real image for cinema, and in this I find the relationship with painting very interesting because the painter was the first creator of images in our civilisation. For me, the painter is a primitive artist: painting is a language from the dawn and cinema a language from the twilight of our civilisation.

Of course we can’t go back to what the early filmmakers – Lumière, Vigo, the early Renoir, Murnau – were because there is almost 100 years of cinema bearing down on us. The cinema of that era didn’t reflect on itself, it just let itself live. Yet sometimes you need to look back to the origins – not to imitate, because it’s impossible to reproduce the same thing, but because within a disoriented world in crisis, those origins can shed a certain light. Today everything is made according to formulae, formulae that have expelled reality, stereotypes. There’s a tiredness, almost a sickness. Even though there is cinema made with great talent, it is calculated. So it’s important for cinema to get back in contact with reality.

This fascination with early – ‘silent’ – cinema is clearly present in the enigmatic silence of The Spirit of the Beehive_, which relies less on spoken dialogue than on a complex pattern of sound and images to demystify the ‘monstrous’ creatures of the cinema screen and the artificially speechless adult world of post-Civil War Spain.

The Spirit of the Beehive speaks of the generation who had lived through the Civil War. And civil war is the most terrible experience a community can live through because brother is set against brother. In a civil war everyone is defeated – there are no real victors. What characterises those people in my memory of my childhood is that they were in general very silent, introspective people. They didn’t want to speak because they had lived through something so horrific. We children experienced it as a form of absence: we sensed that deep down they were far away. And perhaps that is why there was a lack of communication.

The highly metaphorical language of the film is often seen as a strategy in response to the restrictions of censorship as well as a reflection of the atmosphere within a silenced generation.

It’s something you can’t judge according to notions of political determinism. I didn’t set out to solve the problem of censorship: I was mainly concerned to find my own voice, and since lack of freedom is something that people of my generation carry within us, I assumed my voice would reflect that lack of freedom in a natural way. I have always believed that artistic language – and particularly poetry – is a language that is not socially codified and that censors understand only what is socially codified. So the censor was unable to cut a single metre of The Spirit of the Beehive: they sensed it wasn’t a film that was favourable to their ideas, but they couldn’t find the arguments to destroy it.

But does this complexity inevitably compromise the authenticity of the image?

In cinema there is a language of prose and a language of poetry. It’s a distinction Pasolini liked to make: he talked about cinema di prosa and cinema di poesia to differentiate the two types of language. Prose always recounts things in a direct way, whereas poetry expresses the ideas of the world in a totally indirect way, and more powerfully perhaps, because it speaks to the unconscious.

Is there an inevitable conflict between imposing a particular interpretation of reality – even when it’s only in the selection and organisation of images – and the pursuit of truth?

Generally I don’t like cinema in which the message is very obvious, so I’d prefer to call it showing or suggesting a particular interpretation rather than imposing it. The language of television is an authoritarian language that seeks a hidden means of persuading the consciousness, whereas the language of cinema – or at least of the cinema I like – communicates on an emotional level and obliges people to look within themselves, but without the idea of a rigid or direct discourse. I think all the films I have made have a common characteristic: they describe a journey of discovery, a spiritual journey. At the outset there is a consciousness that is beginning to discover things and at the end of the journey that consciousness has understood something.

How might this spiritual journey be understood in relation to The Spirit of the Beehive ?

We see the child’s consciousness being formed throughout the film – a consciousness that will be characterised forever as separated from the conventional vision of the world. It could be the consciousness of an artist, an excess of vision through which artists see things that others don’t see, or see them in a different way. At the beginning Ana is a docile, timid person – just a child who asks questions. She can’t understand how there can be something so absurd in life or so terrible that makes a monster kill a child. What the monster wants, in his misery, is to be accepted into society, yet society rejects him – perhaps because of his excess of humanity, for there is something tremendously humane in the monster. So the child’s identification with him is the identification with those who suffer, because she experiences suffering too.

In the beginning Ana exists only through her sister or through the things she is told about, but by the end she exists in her own right. The first trace of her identity has been formed, and that is why she says ‘I am’ for the first time. But that formative process involves pain. Knowledge is like a wound; consciousness is formed through a wound.
Interview by Rikki Morgan, Sight and Sound, April 1993

Director: Víctor Erice
Production Company: Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematográficas
Producer: Elías Querejeta
Production Manager: Primitivo Álvaro
Unit Manager: Fernando Hermoso
Production Assistant: Pedro Esteban Samu
1st Assistant Director: José Luis Ruíz Marcos
2nd Assistant Director: Francisco Lucio Ramos
Script Supervisor: Francisco J. Querejeta
Screenplay/Original Story: Ángel Fernández Santos, Víctor Erice
Director of Photography: Luis Cuadrado
Camera Operator: Teo Escamilla
1st Assistant Camera: Santiago Zuazo
2nd Assistant Camera: José Manuel de Nicolas
Stills Photography: Laureano López Martínez
Editor: Pablo G. del Amo
1st Assistant Editor: José Salcedo
2nd Assistant Editor: Juan Ignacio San Mateo
Art Director: Adolfo Cofiño
Set Decorators: Ramón de Diego, Jaime Chávarri
Costume House: Peris Hermanos
Wardrobe: Angelines Castro
Make-up Artist: Ramón de Diego
Assistant Make-up Artist: Ángel Luis De Diego
Title Designer: Ana Torrent
Title Artwork: Alicia Tellería, Isabel Tellería, María Tellería
Opticals/Title Designer: Pablo Núñez
Music: Luis de Pablo
Sound Recording: Luis Rodríguez
Sound Effects: Luis Castro, SYRE
Special Collaborators: Miguel Picazo, Laly Soldevila

Fernando Fernán Gómez (Fernando)
Teresa Gimpera (Teresa)
Ana Torrent (Ana)
Isabel Tellería (Isabel)
Laly Soldevilla (Doña Lucia, teacher)
Miguel Picazo (doctor)
José Villasante (Frankenstein’s monster)
Juan Margallo (the fugitive)
Ketty de la Cámara (Milagros)
Estanis González (captain, Guardia civil)
Manuel de Agústina (theatre owner)
Miguel Aguado (projectionist)

Spain 1973
98 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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