In a small village nestled deep into the Spanish countryside five-year old Ana (Ana Torrent) would attend a screening of James Whale's Frankenstein. For days after the show the little girl will think about the monster she'd seen on the screen – his enormously big body, the unusual head, the stiff but very scary hands. Ana's older sister (Isabel Telleria) will convince her that monsters as the one from the movie are indeed amongst us, they just need to be found. Like the one Ana's sister has seen hiding on the outskirts of the village.
Widely regarded as the greatest Spanish film from the 1970s Victor Erice's El Espiritu de la Comena a.k.a The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) is a work of endless symbolism. Completed at a time when Franco still had its iron fist placed over the country the story of young Ana and her quest for the elusive "monster" is as beautiful to behold as it is fascinating to decipher. Every shot, every camera move, every character in this film tells a tiny fragment from the political and cultural past of a country devastated by civil war.
For many years Victor Erice's film was seen and read as a metaphor mirroring the brittle Spanish society from the beginning of the century. The violent conflicts between Republicans and Nationalists were related to the scuffles between the two sisters, the enormously subtle use of silence was seen as a witty slam at Spanish politicians and their tolerance for the crimes committed by Franco, the elusive monster Ana was searching for was the fascist dictator himself. The Sprit of the Beehive evolved into a large political puzzle where everyone familiar with Spanish history saw something well-worth discussing.
I never saw this film entirely as an artistic death-sentence to an oppressive and callous regime. There is too much here that one would undeservedly discard if one were to deconstruct The Spirit of the Beehive strictly as a political metaphor. The confusing world of a child whose questions are impossible to answer was too fascinating to me, too inviting not to respond with the proper mindset, one that may not necessarily want to be bothered with political statements. And so I chose to enjoy Victor Erice's work! I followed Ana as she gathered enough courage to challenge the monster, I hoped that she would make up with her sister, and finally I wanted to find out who or what was hiding in that abandoned well on the outskirts of the village.
No matter how you choose to see this film there shouldn't be any indecisiveness as to what makes it a great cinematic experience - the rich texture, the stunningly beautiful cinematography, the enormously gifted Ana Torrent whose performance forced critics to read carefully between the lines, that eerie sense of something terrible set to come undone, the mythical vision of Spain locked in a time capsule where terrifying monsters roam unleashed. This is indeed the work of a master whose message will be talked about for many years to come.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's the film looks utterly impressive. This newly restored by Criterion print is of extremely high-quality and one could easily tell that much effort has been put in it. The progressive image is exceptionally strong and there is hardly any damage that I could spot here (only a few tiny instances of dirt). Finally contrast is also very well handled as the film looks just as I remember it: a bit dreamy, not too sharp and too soft, just the right film-like look that you would expect from a perfectly produced disc. The big issue here is that Criterion have once again felt the need to "adjust" colors as they deem correct. I think that together with their window-boxing practice this has got to be the most annoying tactic I have seen from them in a long time. If you imported the only other English friendly release by Optimum as I did and by now have seen the film at least 2-3 times you are most surely bound to encounter some strange differences. Just as the now notorious Meilville-releases by Criterion what we have here surely will produce a bit of head-scratching!!
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with its original Spanish mono track the audio is simply flawless. It shows that the audio mix provided here has undergone serious restoration work as I could not detect anything that is likely to upset the perfectionist in you. The English subtitles are optional and also of exceptionally high-quality.
Arriving as a splendid double-digi pack (this is one exceptionally stylish package) The Spirit of the Beehive is complimented with a number of extras found on disc 2:
The Footprints of a Sprit: a documentary featuring director Victor Erice, producer Elias Querejeta, co-screenwriter Angel Santos, and actress Ana Torent. A wonderful collage of interviews that shed plenty of light on the film, its agenda, and how it was made possible. Victor Erice has some great comments about the images he had in his head and how they came to be.
Victor Erice in Madrid: a short interview with the director of the film recorded back in 2000 in which the director talks a great deal about the "monster".
New interviews with scholar Linda C. Ehrlich and actor Fernando Gomez-the two interviews are offered separately. Mrs. Ehrlich has recorded the interview exclusively for the Criterion Collection and in it she attempts to explain some of the magic surrounding The Spirit of the Beehive through the years. Both interviews put the film in perspective elaborating on the political overtones mentioned in the review above.
With the risk of ending this review with a clichéd line…The Spirit of the Beehive is a true masterpiece!! The print provided by Criterion is in exceptionally good condition yet the company's continuous desire to "adjust" the color scheme of well-known pictures is puzzling. Melville, Godard, Erice…I am unsure why?!