Some of the most lasting works of art are those than can be appreciated on a variety of levels. Such is the case with Victor Erice’s 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive. A masterpiece of Spanish cinema, the movie is set in 1940, a year after the Spanish Civil War ended with the authoritarian, right wing regime of Francisco Franco defeating the left-leaning Republicans and taking control of the country. The state of Spain in the aftermath of this outcome is a constant influence throughout Erice’s meditative film. And yet someone who doesn’t know a thing about that war or Franco’s government can enjoy the movie.
Co-written by director Erice, the story is also about the emotional estrangement within a family and, more centrally, the bittersweet wonders of childhood discoveries of life and its mysteries. The family (all the characters go by the first name of the actors who play them) is: Fernando, the eccentric father, who keeps odd hours, spends a lot time in beekeeping activities and then holing up in his study and writing reflective, poetic pieces about the bees; Teresa, Fernando’s much younger wife, a beautiful woman who plays moody tunes on the piano and writes romantic letters to a lost love who is elsewhere now, perhaps displaced by the war; Isabel, the oldest child, who is a precocious girl who has an easy laugh yet who gets off on torturing the family cat and playing mean tricks on her younger sister; and that sister, Ana, is the most important character in the tale – she is a wide-eyed, innocent child who gets taken on various coming-of-age experiences over the course of the story, which is in great part seen through her eyes and heart.