It is one of the strangest stories we have heard of. It concerns one of the great mysteries of creation, life and death. Beware. Perhaps it will offend you. It may even terrify you. Not many films in the whole world have had a greater impact. But I advise you not to take it very seriously.
So says the man in the tuxedo who introduces Frankenstein, the movie within a movie at the beginning of Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, a Spanish movie from 1973. Made in the last years of the Franco era, the plot concerns a young girl, Ana, who lives in a remote town in Spain at the end of the Spanish civil war. After seeing Frankenstein, goaded by her sister, Ana comes to believe that the actual Frankenstein monster lives in an abandoned building outside of town—the same building where a fugitive happens to take refuge. Thus do the girl’s imaginative world and the world of her country’s politics get woven together, until the game of what is real and what is not matters much less than what the filmmaker is able to do by blending the two together.
Those of you who have seen Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone have probably already noted the many similarities; Guillermo del Toro himself has said that “Spirit of the Beehive is one of those seminal movies that seeped into my very soul.” But the influence goes far beyond del Toro. My knowledge of Spanish movies is by no means exhaustive, but it seems that Erice’s film is now simply part of Spanish cinema’s DNA.1Spirit feels like a blueprint for what I’ve loved about my favorite Spanish movies: the constant sense of the uncanny, the mixing of genres (in Spirit’s case, social documentary, coming-of-age movie, and horror) in a particular way—what kind of movie are we watching again?—and most of all, a plot that starts off kind of weird, gets weirder, gets really weird, and then stops, because the movie isn’t as concerned with wrapping up character and story arcs as it is with chasing the ideas it has as far as it can. Spain seems to be able to churn out movie after movie of the sort that Hollywood doesn’t have the guts to make.2
Which is all the more impressive because Spirit of the Beehive is a very quiet movie. Its characters seem to talk only as a last resort, only when the plot can’t be moved forward in any other way. Whenever possible, Spirit moves through images. The isolation of the town is conveyed through absolutely stunning shots of the landscape around it,3 and the relationships between characters are developed through gestures, glances, or the gift of an apple. It doesn’t ever feel unnatural, but it defies current cinematic conventions, which would almost certainly have had the characters talk more, or filled much of that quiet with a soundtrack, telling us how to feel.4
I admit that when I first saw Spirit about a decade ago, I didn’t connect with it at all. It felt like something I was supposed to be watching because I was interested in Spain and Spanish culture, and I was bored. But just last week, when I watched it again, I was hypnotized and shaken. I don’t know what accounts for it. Perhaps my taste has changed. Perhaps I have Guillermo del Toro to thank for breaking me in with Labyrinth and Backbone, making certain elements of Spirit just familiar enough that I could be knocked on my ass by what was unfamiliar. Whatever the case, I can’t seem to get it off my mind. Even sitting at my desk now, the scene where the two girls run across the huge, barren plain to the abandoned house while the clouds throw moving shadows across everything is playing in the back of my head, and I’m amazed all over again at how such a simple scene can be suffused with such wonder and dread.
1 Somewhere, probably written in Spanish, is a fascinating essay about how and why the cinematic vocabulary of the dictatorial Franco era—born of the necessity to be elliptical about what you’re trying to say to avoid censorship or worse—is still used in post-Franco Spain, one of the most vibrant democracies in the world, where people can now say what they want, however they want. Now that being elliptical is a choice, why do filmmakers still choose it?
2 That said, due to El Orfanato’s success in Spain and its Oscar nod, it is being remade in Hollywood. I’m not saying that the U.S. remake will be bad. But having seen the terrifying and heartbreaking original, it’s hard to imagine it making sense outside of a Spanish context, not only because it concerns, in part, Spain’s trauma and recovery from the Franco era, but because many plot points rely subtly but crucially on Spain’s swift transition from dictatorship to democracy and the control and release of information that accompanied it.
3 When I rented Spirit from Best Video—which really is the best video store I’ve ever had the privilege of living within spitting distance of—they’d already checked out the restored DVD and had only a well-loved videocassette. (Yes, I still own a VCR.) Richard, the man behind the counter, and I then actually had a conversation about how fidelity doesn’t always improve the movie. He pointed to a blu-ray version of 2001 that happened to be playing behind him. We were at the opening sequence—you know, with the monkeys—and he commented that what had, in the original film, looked plausibly like somewhere in North Africa now looked obviously like a movie set. Kubrick had known very well what he could get away with on film, and succeeded; the sharpening of the image was undoing his work. Ironically, however, when I got home and started watching Spirit, and saw just how gorgeous and important the cinematography was to the movie, I immediately wished I’d waited for the DVD to come back in.
4 Not that I’m against music in movies. Where would Westerns be without Ennio Morricone? But let’s just all admit that it’s always manipulative to have it in there. Like a laugh track but much, much more effective.