Though it's still relatively obscure, Víctor Erice's 1973 cinema-poem The Spirit Of The Beehive often lands on lists of the greatest movies ever made, because those who see it even once have a hard time forgetting its dreamy imagery and subtle symbolism. Ana Torrent and Isabel Telleriá play preteen sisters whose scientist father and moody mother have moved the whole family to a remote Castilian plain to escape the Spanish Civil War. After the girls see a traveling screening of Frankenstein, Torrent becomes obsessed with finding her own "monster" to befriend, and her search brings her closer to understanding the world of adults, and what "death" means. The Spirit Of The Beehive was written by Ángel Fernández Santos and directed by Erice during the regime of Francisco Franco—the instigator of a lot of the history referenced in the movie—and some have called Beehive a complex metaphor for the death of individualism under fascism.
But understanding modern Spanish history isn't essential to understanding what The Spirit Of Beehive meant to some Spaniards in 1973. Sometimes art inspires people just by giving them a deeper feeling for beauty during a time of pervasiveness ugliness. In the case of Erice's film, the extended meditation of what animates us becomes cumulatively moving. Torrent and Telleriá drift through their days in a sparsely populated village, getting instruction on human anatomy, classifying poison mushrooms, and finding clues to their parents' interior lives. Then the girls start to experiment. Telleriá jumps through bonfires and strangles the family cat, testing the limits of when pain begins and life starts to end. Meanwhile, Torrent considers ways she might kill herself, and stares at her fractured reflection in a moonlit pond.
Both of these characters, Erice reminds the audience, are really just shadows on a screen. In the beginning of Beehive, when Torrent is curious about why Frankenstein's monster would kill a little girl, Telleriá grunts, "Movies are all fake. It's a trick." As Erice studies these nonexistent people—in elegantly composed shots that run long enough for viewers to marvel at the arrangement—he returns to how Frankenstein is "beautiful," because it reflects "the great mysteries of creation." The Spirit Of The Beehive means to nudge adult viewers back to a childlike state, watching in awe, faintly confused and thoroughly beguiled.
Key features: A comprehensive featurette and lengthy interviews, which help decode the film without completely demystifying it.