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The Criterion Collection presents
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

"She's under the effect of a powerful experience."
- Don Miguel (Miguel Picazo)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: September 17, 2006

Stars: Ana Torrent, Isabel Tellería, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera
Director: Víctor Erice

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:38m:53s
Release Date: September 19, 2006
UPC: 715515018326
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

My goodness, what an insinuating, delicate, extraordinary film this is. It's not overpowering, and it's got a kind of stasis that may make you restless; certainly we've been conditioned not to study too closely nor to brood when we watch a movie, but catering to our shortening attention spans have made too many movies jittery and unpleasant, overcut and overshot and ill thought out. You couldn't say any of that about The Spirit of the Beehive, a film with a soaring reputation in limited circles—if this smashing DVD release helps spread the good word to a wider audience, so much the better.

This is a ghost story of sorts, but not of the damnit-woman-don't-open-that-door variety. It's set on the Castilian plain in 1940, the Spanish Civil War still sickeningly vivid, the worst of World War II about to happen, but this is only backdrop, for tonight, in this small town, there is cause for celebration: there will be a screening of Frankenstein in the village hall, and the arrival of the print brings with it all the promise and danger of a grand adventure. The locals pay a few pesetas, line up folding chairs or simply find a spot on the floor with a sufficient vantage point—particularly affected by the film are two little girls, sisters, Ana and Isabel. Isabel is the more restless of the two; Ana, wide eyed, intensely concentrating, is absolutely transported.

What follows are a series of psychological elaborations, demonstrating the effect that the movie has had on Ana especially, but more important, illuminating the impact of a variety of emotional horrors that seem to be quietly and delicately inflicted on the girls. Relevant excerpts of correspondence between the children's parents, for instance, indicate to us that this marriage is in peril; their father, played by the haunted, moving Fernando Fernán Gómez, would rather tend to and write about his bees, and his avocation of course provides the film with its title. Fantasy and violence press their way into these girls' lives, and it's a movie that almost asks to be read metaphorically—is this about the trauma of childhood? The terror of the Franco regime? The darkness at the heart of family life?—that in many ways it's analogous to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

But you need not be schooled in mid-century Spanish politics to appreciate this story, and the technical aspects of the filmmaking will just knock you out. Director Víctor Erice favors lap dissolves to show the passage of time, and some of them are little cinematographic miracles—he also has an eye for the thorn in the rose, showing us images of great beauty and puncturing them justthismuch with something dark. (There's a decidedly Arbusesque quality, for instance, in the many two shots of the little girls.) Erice knows not to ask too much of his child actors; he's got a keen sense of what it's like to discover the secrets, the unease, the mysteries of the big people's world, and he lets the emotions flicker over the face of Ana Torrent (who plays Ana) particularly. Isabel is unquestionably the monstrous one—she begins with tormenting the cat, and moves on to doing the same with her sister, making the girls a sort of case study, with one acting out, the other internalizing all the free-floating anxiety of their childhoods. And the control over palette is pretty extraordinary as well—the ochres and umbers of the Spanish countryside are rendered with tremendous precision. That sort of control extends to the smallest details of production design—of course the glass in the windows in the family home are small hexagons in cast-iron frames, meshing together like so many bits of a honeycomb. It can be exhausting and demanding to watch a film with this sort of precision, but it's well worth the effort, for the cumulative effect of this movie is exhilarating.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Luis Cuadrado's breathtaking cinematography looks stellar here, and Criterion has done its usual bang-up job of shining things up. You may notice an occasional jumpy frame, but overall it looks just terrific.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Generally nicely muted and balanced, though the mono track has its limits, even if not as many as my high-school Spanish.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Disc 1 is devoted to the feature, Disc 2 to the ample supplements. The Footprints of a Spirit (48m:24s) looks at the making of the picture, and includes a visit to Hoyuelos, population 92, the town where it was shot, where a screening of the movie is held for the locals. It features interview footage with Erice and a charming, adult Ana Torrent, among others; Erice talks extensively about the inspiration provided by James Whale's Frankenstein, and there's some good general information on the tyranny of the Franco regime, for artists especially. Víctor Erice in Madrid (48m:25s) offers more of the director's personal reminiscences, from 2000—he discusses, among other topics, his own childhood, and the influence of the films of John Ford. Fernando Fernán Gómez walks down memory lane in a 2006 interview (11m:18s), recalling getting the script at a time when he was antsy for work, and readily copping to the producer that he didn't understand a word of it. And Case Western Reserve professor Linda C. Ehrlich provides some scholarly remarks (16m:25s); she's particularly insightful about the influences on Erice, including Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Nosferatu. Finally, the accompanying booklet features an informative essay by film scholar Paul Julian Smith, who's especially good on the legacy of the movie.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A film with hypnotic, almost incantatory power, it gets at the possibilities and dangers of childhood, of what it's like to feel your dreams in your bones. It looks magnificent on this handsome DVD set, a particular boon to those uninitiated into the ways of the film's sinuous pleasures. Most highly recommended.


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