By now, most European art-house flicks about children follow the same predictable, Miramax-friendly formula: A doe-eyed, adorably round-headed boy or girl grows up against the backdrop of a nation's unrest; cue lots of nostalgic music and amber-toned shots of the European countryside. But before the template was set, director Victor Erice shattered the very notions of a coming-of-age film with his quiet, impressionistic and often horrifying 1973 tale about two girls growing up in the years immediately following the Spanish Civil War. Precious little actually happens in Spirit of the Beehive, but Erice's painterly sense of joy and dread make it one of the most delicately ominous films in the history of cinema.
With the exception of Terence Malick, few modern directors are as willing to tell a story through mere images as Erice is in Beehive. There's scarcely more dialogue here than in a silent film, and what is said by the characters is usually whispered. After a credit sequence of scrawled children's drawings, we're introduced to two precocious young girls, Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Telleria), living in a quiet, sparsely populated village in Castile in the early 1940s. You don't need to know anything about Spain's history to know that something isn't quite right; Erice communicates it almost entirely through mood. As their father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) tends to his swarming beehives, their mother (Teresa Gimpera) scribbles letters to an unnamed, presumably missing acquaintance. "Perhaps our ability to feel life has vanished along with all the rest," she writes.
The movie is given some semblance of a plot or rather, an overriding metaphor when the girls go to see Frankenstein at the town's movie hall. Both are rapt with attention, first at the creature's touching relationship with a young girl, then at the accidental death of the girl and the hunting and killing of the creature. Isabel suggests to Ana that Frankenstein is a ghostly spirit that they can contact if they try hard enough, which prompts Ana to search a deserted farmhouse for a monstrous plaything of her own.
All the girls' encounters are filled with wonder and fear; the movie is a series of languid, tense images of childhood discovery. Freud would have a field day with the scene in which a bored Isabel squeezes her cat's throat until it lashes out at her, after which she uses her bloody finger as lipstick. Ana is the younger and more sensitive of the two, and the young Torrent gives a miraculous performance here, conveying more in a few milky-eyed glances than a Hollywood child actress like Dakota Fanning has in her entire career. Meanwhile, Telleria is perfectly cast at the age where grade-school girls start to exhibit small signs of competitiveness, deception and defiance with their siblings. Through her, Erice subtly suggests the casual evil that lurks in children growing up in an uncertain environment. The gorgeous red, brown and green color scheme combined with the soothing flute-and-guitar sound track may lull you into thinking that Spirit of the Beehive is some sort of poetic travelogue. But make no mistake: Erice's symbolic, death-obsessed imagery will haunt you like no ordinary coming-of-age film could.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 27. Call 313-833-3237.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.