The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) was the first film to address the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, which it presented obliquely, through the eyes of a child. In part this was necessary to evade the censors; the dictator Francisco Franco still ruled Spain when Victor Erice made the film. But the story, which Erice wrote as well as directed, was intensely personal. “Erice and co-screenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos based the script on their own memories,” Paul Julian Smith revealed in his Criterion essay on the film, “recreating school anatomy lessons, the discovery of poisonous mushrooms, and the ghoulish games of childhood. It is no accident that the film is set in 1940, the year of Erice’s own birth.”
Erice belongs to the second generation of Spanish Civil War survivors. Too young to have experienced the worst of the conflict, when Loyalist defenders of the democratically-elected Republic battled with Nationalist rebels led by Generalísimo Franco while the German Luftwaffe bombed civilians in Republican strongholds, he grew up in a society where memory was suppressed. The victors imposed their version of history, presenting the war as a quasi-religious crusade, a reassertion of traditional Spanish values against the godless agenda of the “Reds.” Supporters of the Republic who were not killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile after the defeat were silenced. Mourning was done in private, betrayal being commonplace, particularly in small villages such as the one in which Spirit of the Beehive is set. “Only by acting as if everything is perfectly normal can you show that you are above suspicion,” said one of the subjects interviewed by Roland Fraser in his oral history of the war and its aftermath, Blood of Spain.
Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent.–Miguel de Unamuno
Ana, the young heroine of Erice’s film, lives in a remote village in Old Castile, a region conquered early in the war by Franco’s forces. We are made aware that both of her parents supported the Republic. Ana’s father Fernando is an old-style rationalist who dabbles in natural science, studying the behavior of his bees and jotting down his philosophical reflections in a little notebook, working late into the night on his esoteric research. Teresa, Ana’s mother, spends her days alone, writing to an ex-lover who is now a refugee in France, most likely because he belonged to one of the Republican militias. “Perhaps our ability to really feel life has vanished along with the rest,” she laments in a letter.
Certainly the household is emotionally cauterized. Fernando and Teresa seem detached from Ana and her older sister Isabel and barely speak to one another; in one scene, we see Teresa pretending to be asleep when Fernando finally comes to bed. The camerawork reinforces the isolation. Never do we see the family together in one establishing shot, not even when they are all at the breakfast table. The characters speak in low voices, when they speak at all. “The Spirit of the Beehive” is one of the most silent films I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere is one of bereavement, the adults walking around as if their skin hurts, the way you feel when you realize the world no longer holds the person you loved.
Ana comes to enact her parents’ grief—and perhaps the grief of Spain itself. A wounded soldier she encounters in an abandoned barn near the family’s house becomes a friendly spirit in her imagination. One day he disappears. We know that he was shot by the local police, but Ana is told nothing, and so she invents an answer to the mystery. She retreats into silence now, neither eating or sleeping. The doctor is called, another crypto-Republican it would appear as Teresa calls him by his Christian name, Miguel. But other than reminding her of the sacrifices that they must all make, Miguel offers only the weakest of reassurances. “Teresa, the important thing is that your daughter’s alive. She’s alive.” Ana has had a shock, he says, and will heal in time. Thirty-three years later, Erice seemed to be saying, Spain is still waiting.