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Once Upon a Time… Victor Erice

The moment little Ana Torrent showed up on screen in The Spirit of the Beehive, she took my heart. Until a couple months ago, I had never watched a Victor Erice movie, but as I discovered new films, I kept falling in love. Since then, I have been wondering why Erice’s filmmaking speaks to me so loudly, yet with the softness of a whisper.

The Spirit of the Beehive takes place in 1940, in “a village on the Castilian plain.” By this time, Spain was just out of their civil war and under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Erice’s film portrays a country left with a barrage of poorly shaped buildings and empty streets. A father secretly listens to the radio and a mother writes letters to strange, exiled men. A fugitive — probably a resistant — is found hidden inside an old ruin. There’s a looming sensation of melancholy and isolation spread thin throughout. It’s not heavy-handed. Politics isn’t the main theme. It’s about cinema and childhood; young people who rarely understand the truth of what’s going on around them.

Erice was born is that same year of 1940. He studied film and made his directorial debut in 1973, still under Franco’s dictatorship. Back then, New Cinema used metaphors and allegories as a way to undercover political ideologies — an obvious trait of Erice’s authorship, but not the strongest.

With such a short filmography, it’s curious that Erice is praised as an auteur. He has directed only three feature films and half a dozen shorts; a filmmaker who won’t be dragged down by a system that would confine his creative freedom. He’s a cinema lover who, in his words, craves for a time when there was more space for possibility; a time when film was not only an object of wonder, but also an educator to children like himself.

In The Spirit of the Beehive, a woman makes an announcement and a truck arrives at the village. Before the film reels are out of the booth, the truck’s surrounded by a gang of clamoring children, anxious for the showing. “The movies!,” they shout. As the door to the fleapit opens, a mob of all ages goes in. With chairs and stools in their hands, they sit and wait for the magic.

For a few minutes, cinema is the main character of the film. The only one. That is until Ana enters the room and finds a spot in the middle of the crowd. With black hair and big dark eyes, she reminds me of my mother. Back in the 60s, my grandfather worked as a projectionist at a small movie theater. He used to take my mother there, she tells me (now a little older), with hair not quite as black, but the same big brown eyes. I always pictured her exactly like Ana — an air of innocence enraptured by the images before her.

The movie projected is James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Ana has a rough time understanding the monster’s behavior, as well as his punishment. Death is an intricate matter. That same night, while lying in bed, she asks her sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria) for answers. The older girl tells her the monster is not dead. She’s seen him alive in a place near the village. “People can’t see him. He only comes out at night.” He’s a spirit.

Ana becomes obsessed with the idea.

In El Sur (1983), Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) is a little girl living with her parents in the north of Spain, on another large house surrounded by farmlands, next to a small town. Fascinated by her father and his unconventional talents, she’s allured by his mysterious past and southern roots. He becomes a symbol of the unknown and fuel to her imagination.

As Estrella gets older, she is drawn to the coldness of reality. Now played by Iciar Bollain, she grows aware of her father’s flaws and weaknesses. She learns of an old mistress he still loves, a woman whose face she remembers seeing in a movie poster illustration.

El Sur is told through the voice over of a nostalgic Estrella. As in memories, there is not much furniture or decoration, and the people in the film are as few as necessary.

Once again, childhood and cinema are at the core of the movie, tied with memory and imagination. Much like in The Spirit of the Beehive, it’s easy to identify with the children, so much that I’m constantly reminded of my own childhood.

Children are not only Erice’s favorite main characters, they are the canvas of his storytelling. The director finds something special about the observer’s role, always attentive, trying to make sense of the world. With his care, Erice bonds spectatorship and childhood.

For the duration of the two features, whenever there are children on screen, the camera is at their eye level. The paso doble of Estrella and her father is one perfect example. The adults’ heads are cut out of the frame. Viewers see through children’s eyes.

When the story pulls away from the children to focus on their parents and family, the framing retains an observational character. In El Sur, Erice repeatedly shoots through windows, creating a contemplative atmosphere. In dialogues and other moments of interaction, there is a preference to focus on reaction.

In Lifeline (2002), a segment for Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet, an infant — asleep in his crib — bleeds to a possible death. Around the farm, everyone engages in their daily chores while children make up reasons to play. A newspaper titled “The New Spain” covers the war in Europe. It dates from June 1940. Erice’s own memories emerge again, reinforcing the deeply autobiographical character of his films and his longing for a time before the present.

Ten years later, Erice directed another segment: Broken Glasses (2012). An old photograph hanging on a wall of a factory links the tales of former employees. Memory is yet another form of observation — one Erice is obviously fond of. His filmography is framed nostalgia. It’s a journey to the past and an ode to the imagination. These are movies where the intelligence of a grown man meets the simple and curious gaze of a child. An exquisite trait. Something I had never seen before and crave to find again.

Inês Lebreaud was born in a small Portuguese town and fell in love with art. In 2016, she finished a Master’s Degree in cinema, directing a feature film as her final project. Inês now works as a production designer and freelance writer. 
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