I seldom use the word masterpiece, but it could be applied to Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive,” which is now available for the first time on DVD, after a nice revival in a new 35-millimeter print at Film Forum earlier this year.
Don’t be deterred by the title, which refers to the beekeeping profession of the father of the protagonist, a young Spanish girl who becomes obsessed with horror and death after watching the classic American film “Frankenstein,” directed by James Whale and starring the iconic actor Boris Karloff at his scariest.
That she watches the movie with her older sister (Isabel Tellurian) in a collective setting, at a town-hall screening, orchestrated by a traveling film truck, makes it all the more significant.
Over the years, we have seen great child performances, but arguably, along with the child-stars of “Ponnette,” and “Forbidden Games,” Ana Torrent gives one of the most touching and accomplished ones.
Director Erice’s film output is unfortunately small. But in this picture, singled out by many critics around the world as one of the most mesmerizing children stories, Erice has captured the inbred morbidity of childhood fantasies as arguably no other filmmaker ever has.
The saga’s political-historical setting is crucial: “Spirit of the Beehive” is set in a tiny village on the desolate Castilian plain in 1940, a year after the end of the traumatic Spanish Civil War. That war is never mentioned explicitly in the movie, but it nonetheless cast an indelible darks shadow on its young heroine—and on the viewers.
It’s a must-see film. Among other things, “Spirit of the Beehive” has influenced the work of Spaniard Carlos Saura and more recently Mexican Guillermo Del Toro, whose Cannes-premiered “Pan’s Labyrinth” (and other children horror tales) owes a debt to Erice.