Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

In a vast Spanish plain, harvested of its crops, a farm home rests. Some distance away there is a squat building like a barn, apparently not used, its doors and windows missing. In the home lives a family of four: two little girls named Ana and Isabel, and their parents, Fernando and Teresa. He is a beekeeper, scholar and poet who spends much time in his book-lined study. She is a solitary woman who writes letters of longing and loss to men not identified. The parents have no conversations of any consequence.


It’s an exciting day in the village. A ramshackle truck rattles into town announced by scampering children, who shout, “The movies! The movies!” A screen and projector are set up in the public hall, and an audience of kids and old women gather to see “Frankenstein” (1931).

For the children, the movie had might as well only be about the monster, so tellingly performed by Boris Karloff. The creature comes upon a farmer’s young daughter tossing flowers into a pond to watch them float. Perhaps because of censorship, the film cuts directly from this to the monster mournfully carrying the child’s drowned body through the village. Perhaps because of censorship, we don’t see that he did not drown her, but threw her in with delight, thinking she would float as well. For the two girls, especially Ana (Ana Torrent), this makes a dramatic impression.

Her misunderstanding of the scene will shape the events to follow in Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” (1973), believed by many to be the greatest of all Spanish films. Although the time is not specified, it would have been clear to Spanish audiences that the film is set soon after the end of the Spanish Civil War, which began Franco’s long dictatorship — so soon after that the same day, a wounded opponent of the regime takes refuge in the barn-like outbuilding.

Only a few years separate Ana and Isabel (Isabel Telleria), but they form that important divide where Ana depends on her big sister to explain mysteries. The little girl runs carefree all over the farmlands, and in the barn she discovers the wounded soldier. That night, her eyes wide open in the dark, she asks Isabel to explain why the creature drowned the little girl. “Everything in the movies is fake,” she’s told. “It’s all a trick. Besides, I’ve seen him alive. He’s a spirit.” That of course serves for Ana as a possible explanation for the wounded man, and the next day, she sneaks him some food and water, and her father’s coat.

What follows is considered a coded message about Franco’s fascist regime, but it’s not for me to connect the dots. I relate to it more strongly as a poetic work about the imagination of children, and how it can lead them into mischief and sometimes rescue them from its consequences.

“The Spirit of the Beehive” is one of only three features and a short subject directed by Erice (born 1940). Like such films as Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), it is a masterpiece that can only cause us to wonder what we lost because he didn’t work more. It is simple, solemn, and in the casting of young Ana Torrent, takes advantage of her open, innocent features. We can well believe her when she accepts her sister’s explanation, which goes far to account for her behavior later in the film.

This is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. Its cinematographer, Luis Cuadrado, bathes his frame in sun and earth tones, and in the interiors of the family home, he creates vistas of empty rooms where footsteps echo. The house doesn’t seem much occupied by the family. The girls are often alone. The parents also, in separate rooms. Many of the father’s poems involve the mindless churning activity of his beehives, and the house’s yellow-tinted honeycomb windows make an unmistakable reference to beehives. Presumably this reflects on the Franco regime, but when critics grow specific in spelling out the parallels they see, I feel like I’m reading term papers.

More rewarding is to read the surface of the film. When Ana’s good intentions to the “spirit” are misinterpreted, and when she is linked to the wounded man by her father’s pocket watch, this sets up a situation that could be dangerous for both father and daughter. When she runs away and inspires a search — the lanterns of volunteers bobbing through the night — we feel how the behavior of innocent children can lead them into trouble. In a later scene when Ana plays a trick on Isabel, the older child also discovers how her myth-making has repercussions.

Ana Torrent starred in another notable Spanish film, Carlos Saura’s “Cria Cuervos” (1976). She has gone on to a successful career, making 45 films and TV series, including Saura’s “Elisa, My Life” (1977), his first film after Franco’s fall. But child actors are often bathed in a glow of enchantment that no later role will quite capture.

Note: “The Spirit of the Beehive” is on DVD in the Criterion Collection and is streaming on Hulu Plus. Also in my Great Movies Collection: “The Night of the Hunter.”

Badlands (1973)

Drama, Romance, Thriller

Rated PG

95 minutes

Holly describes her life as if she’s writing pulp fiction. “Little did I realize,” she tells us, “that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.” It is the wondering narrative voice that lingers beneath all of Terrence Malick’s films, sometimes unspoken: Human lives diminish beneath the overarching majesty of the world.

Holly is practicing her baton-twirling on the front lawn when she meets Kit. She is 15. He is 25, and has just walked off his job as a garbage man. We never learn anything about his earlier years. He walks out of nowhere, sees her, and sweeps her up in his whirlwind. Within a day or two he has shot her father dead, set her house afire, and they are on the run across South Dakota.

Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973) tells a story that has been told many times, of two lovers who are criminals and are pursued across the vastness of America. “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) comes first to mind. Malick’s direct inspiration was the story of Charles Starkweather, the “Mad Dog Killer,” who in 1957-58 with his girl friend Caril Ann Fugate went on a killing spree that left 11 dead, including her parents and younger sister. She was 13, he was 18.

Malick finds no meaning in their crimes, no psychological explanation. Kit is a handsome psychopath who, Holly tells him, looks like James Dean. Holly is an unformed child who seems simple and remote. She describes their odyssey in the third person, as predestined fate. Neither seems to react emotionally to death. Listen here to how she slides over the death of her dog: “Then sure enough Dad found out I been running around behind his back. He was madder than I ever seen him. His punishment for deceiving him: he went and shot my dog. He made me take extra music lessons every day after school, and wait there ‘till he came to pick me up. He said that if the piano didn’t keep me off the streets, maybe the clarinet would.”

Malick opens on the leafy streets of a small town, where Holly’s house on the corner resembles the house Malick used in “The Tree of Life” (2011). We sense his own memories at work. Then he moves into hiding with them in a series of breathtaking scenes, as they live in a forest and roam mindlessly across the empty Great Plains, the quarry of a national manhunt. In the last of their stolen cars, a big Cadillac, they leave the roads and cut cross-country over unfenced prairies, summoning associations with pioneer settlers. “At the very edge of the horizon.” Holly said, “we could make out the gas fires of the refineries at Missoula, while to the south we could see the lights of Cheyenne, a city bigger and grander than I’d ever seen.”

“Badlands” was one of the great films of the flowering of American auteurs in the 1970s, a debut film chosen to close the New York Film Festival. It starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. He was 33 and had done much television acting but this was his first important feature. She was 24, and it was her second movie. Both looked younger than their years. Sheen, with carefully combed hair, blue jeans, checked shirts and Lucky Strikes, had the Dean look; after Charles Starkweather saw “Rebel Without a Cause” he deliberately patterned himself on the movie star. Spacek, red-haired, freckled, slight, seemed a girl, not a woman. Sex has little to do with Kit and Holly’s relationship, although we see some kissing; they seem to be children who are role-playing.

Their shallowness is in conflict with their deadliness. A friend of Kit’s, who seems to help them but then runs for a phone, is shot in the stomach and left to sit, dazed, dying and contemplative. He’d attempted to lure them into a field with a tale of treasure. That Kit believed him took childlike credulity. A family is killed for no other reason than that Kit and Holly come across their farmhouse. A rich man is spared for no reason at all, and Kit later observes how lucky he was. He uses the man’s Dictaphone to record a fatuous final statement: “Listen to your parents and teachers. They got a line on most things, so don’t treat ‘em like enemies. There’s always an outside chance you can learn something. Try to keep an open mind.” He thinks that because he’s famous, his words have meaning.

Nature is always deeply embedded in Malick’s films. It occupies the stage and then humans edge tentatively onto it, uncertain of their roles. There is always much detail, of birds and small animals, of trees and skies, of empty fields or dense forests, of leaves and grain, and always of too much space for the characters to fill. They are nudged here and there by events which they confuse with their destinies. In his “Days of Heaven” (1978), his characters ride the rails into a Texas prairie. His “The Thin Red Line” (1998), a war movie, his characters are embedded in the jungles of Guadalcanal. His “The New World” (2005), shows Native Americans at home in primeval forests while British explorers build forts to hide in. There is a strong sense of humans uneasily accommodated by the land.

“Badlands” is technically a road movie. That is a form which breaks filmmakers free of tight plotting and opens them to whatever happens along the way. They can introduce and dispose of characters and subplots at will. The travelers are all that is constant. In “Badlands” Kit and Holly are fleeing toward nowhere, although Kit talks vaguely of “heading north” and becoming a Mountie. Kit follows along not so much because she must, but because she had a crush on Kit and her father (Warren Oates) angered her by forbidding her to see him. She seems to regard her father’s death only as a convenience.

There is an idyll in a dense forest, where Kit constructs an improbable tree house possibly intended to evoke Tarzan. He rigs alarms and sets booby traps. They lead a natural life, an idle one, aimless. Lacking personal resources, they occupy a default state of boredom. One early shot of Kit shows him walking down an alley, stamping on a tin can to flatten it, then kicking it away. That gives him something to do.

The film has a mystical scene in which Malick has Holly looking at slides through or far-away places through her father’s 3D Stereopticon: “It hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine and I thought where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me?” She realizes perhaps that she had no meaningful existence before Kit. Toward the end of their long flight over the land, Kit’s appeal runs out: “I’d stopped even paying attention to him. Instead I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of mouth where nobody could read them.”

Terrence Malick, born 1943, is a legendary figure in American film, often described as reclusive. In fact, he is simply private, absorbed in his own work, happy with a circle of friends, and declining to join in even token efforts at publicity. I am unaware of a single interview he has given; the many second-hand reports from those who know him paint a cheerful man, friendly, obsessed with details, enraptured by nature. There is a hint of Kubrick. “He can talk to anyone about anything,” Jessica Chastain, the star of “The Tree of Life,” told Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times. He declined to appear at the premiere or press conference for “Tree of Life” at Cannes 2011 (where it won the Palme d’Or), but was seen all over town at dinners and screenings. In five movies in four decades, he has, in his own way, fashioned one of the most distinctive bodies of work of his time. Very much in his own way.

“Days of Heaven” is also reviewed in my Great Movies Collection.