Great news for anyone who likes the medium of film and happens to live in New York: Victor Erice’s spellbinding, endlessly inventive, and seriously disquieting Spirit of the Beehive has been held over at downtown Manhattan’s Film Forum until February 16. Thanks to a lovely new Janus Films rerelease print, I was able to fully experience the enveloping tones of Erice’s seminal 1970s European art film, and even more extraordinarily, without knowing much of anything about it besides its recurring placement on classic Spanish cinema essays and best-of lists. Erice sets his camera on the parched landscape of a small Castillian village in 1940, directly following the Spanish Civil War, specifically on two small girls, Isabel and Ana in the days (weeks?) following their viewing of James Whale’s Frankenstein, brought to their town’s small movie house. Via daily minutiae and fragmented images, we slowly realize that the girls’ home is a fractured one, the distance between their father and mother (rarely seen in the same shot) exacerbated by the desolation of their location and postwar environs.
But Erice goes further, digging into more than mere dysfunction, getting at some sort of ineffable otherness permeating the daily rituals of the two small girls, who seem literally haunted by monsters, both literal (Frankenstein himself makes an eerie lakeside appearance) and not so literal (Isabel’s penchant for frightening the younger Ana begins to seem truly disturbed, sending chills not just through the little girl but this viewer; what has possessed these children?). Nearly every shot is stunning yet never so aestheticized that it moves away from the grain and grit of the family’s earthbound plain; it’s a baffling, irreducibly odd experience that somehow by its abrupt ending reaches an inexplicably emotional clarity. Erice, who has only made one feature per decade since the 70s and only three altogether, is something like Spain’s answer to Malick (both Beehive and Badlands premiered in 1973): unbowdlerized artistic statements made somewhere outside of the confines of monetary expectation, invested at looking at the world around us in alarmingly new ways, and existing within historical context yet defying simple readings at every turn.