In 1940s Spain a family of four live in an isolated farmhouse with window panes resembling the pattern of honeycomb. Father (a beekeeper and poet), and mother barely speak to each other and are disconnected from their two young daughters, little Ana (Ana Torrent) and her elder sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria). One day a rickety travelling cinema comes to the local village and screens James Whales Frankenstein. Ana is transfixed by the film and questions the monsters reason for killing the child. She accepts her sisters answers completely.
Soon after Ana finds a fugitive hiding in a barn. What follows is coloured by a child’s interpretation of life and death. Nearing the end of Franco’s regime, a 1970s Spanish audience could not fail to understand the references to the start of Franco’s dictatorship, its repression and the films representation of a republican soldier in the form of the fugitive.
Yet film studies aficionados can revel all they like in the symbolism and hidden meanings, what places the film repeatedly in the top three of Spanish cinema is Erice’s superb direction, story and screenplay and the performance he elicits from Ana Torrent. It is Erice’s evocation of the innocence and wonder of a child’s inner world, often using silence, lighting and tight close-ups to create atmosphere and strengthen emotion that make the film memorable.
The haunting cinematography and the director’s innovation also count. For instance the sound would have surprised Spanish audiences in 1973. Films at the time commonly post-dubbed dialogue and used women to voice children’s lines in high-pitched tones. Erice recorded the children live on location offering audiences something much more real, helping them to suspend disbelief.
Erice made only three full-length films in his long career. If imitation is any measure of influence, many films owe more than a nod to the director’s masterpiece including Carlos Sauros (1976) Cria Cuervos, Miyazaki Hayaos animated (1988) fantasy My Neighbour Totoro and Gilluermo del Toros (2001) Devils Backbone (2006) Pans Labyrinth. And maybe Erice, who once said When I’ve finished a film, its no longer mine – it belongs to the people. would have liked that.
A haunting mood-piece that dispenses with plot and works its spells through intricate patterns of sound and image. Derek Adams, Time Out
This is one of the most beautiful films Ive seen. Roger Ebert, Great Films
A mysterious crucible as elusive, concrete, and visually primal as anything by Herzog, Straub, Olmi, or Denis. Michael Atkinson, Village Voice