Spanish Director Spotlight: Victor Erice

I’ve been debating for a long while now about dedicating some entries to some of the amazing Spanish cinema and literature out there. Don’t worry. I’ll still be writing about the infinite beautiful and intriguing places Spain has to offer. At the same time, I’d like an excuse to explore and re-explore some of the amazing directors and writers out there.

I could easily start with one of the more famous directors like Pedro Almódovar or Luis Buñuel, and I’ll probably write about both soon enough. However, I thought to kick off this series, I’d go with a lesser, important director: Victor Erice.

Victor Erice was born in 1940 in Karranza in Vizcaya. I never knew he was Basque until now.  He studied at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. Although he’s only made three major movies, his films are widely regarded in the world of cinema, especially Spanish Cinema. Whereas other Spanish directors like Almódovar, Buñuel, and Álex de la Iglesia are known for flashy, provocative productions often involving over the top imagery (and poisoned gazpacho. Never, ever drink the gazpacho!), Erice’s films are quiet, calm productions full of beautiful cinematography and metaphors.

My introduction to Erice came in my Spanish Cinema class in 2007. My first viewing of the film El espiritú de la colmena (“The Spirit of the Beehive”) (1973), I thought “This is the most boring film I have ever seen.” I’m pretty sure that before I went to class, I drank a large cup of vanilla latte or white chocolate mocha to stay awake to discuss it. However, our class discussion was so interesting I needn’t have drunk the extra caffeine. The film is a Pandora’s Box of metaphors about the Franco Regime. Made during the last years of Franco’s dictatorship, El espiritú de la colmena had to be told with metaphors to escape the censorship of the time.

The desolate, isolated landscape of the movie could easily represent the isolation of Spain during the early part of Franco’s dictatorship before he decided to exploit Spain as different for tourism pesetas, dollars, pounds, francs and marks and the desolation represents the bleakness of his government. Frankenstein’s monster (note the Frank in this name) plays a major role in the unfolding of the flick. Was this his subtle way of calling Franco a monster? Were the Spanish citizens the bees trapped in the beehives yearning to escape this oppressive regime? The wind blows through the film quite often. Perhaps even a scene where the smoke from the train hide a women might show how hidden women were during the Franco regime. Or perhaps my Hispanic Studies degree is making me see things.

The film takes place in the years right after the Spanish Civil War. Elsewhere in Europe, World War II was wrecking havoc as Spain struggled to reconstruct. In a small village in a place in La Meseta whose name Erice didn’t want to reveal, we find ourselves witnessing the story of two sisters, Ana and Isabel. (All the principal actors use their real-life names because it confused young actress Ana Torrent to call them by two names, according to Erice and IMDB’s trivia.) When the sisters experience the traveling cinema version of Frankenstein, young Ana is scared the monster is real. Although Isabel tells her the film is fake, Ana communicates with the spirit of the monster and believes he is living in an abandoned sheep shed. In reality, a Republican soldier returning from war has made it his makeshift home. Ana brings him food and her father’s coat. However, the returning soldier is shot by Franco’s soldier’s one night.  Ana’s father is a beekeeper, and her mother is remembering an old love. I won’t reveal the end, but that mushroom her father points out on a Sunday stroll, along with Frankenstein, come into play.

It’s important to note that the family is never shown together. (To show how broken Spain is under Franco?)

This isn’t a film for anyone who needs a lot of action or dialogue in their movies. It’s a very quiet, introspective film that stays with you a long time after viewing. It was voted #2 in 1996’s list of 100 Spanish films.

Here’s a link to the trailer in Spanish.

His next film, El Sur, (The South) (1983), didn’t suffer the censorship of the Franco era, and Erice could’ve gone wild. This was the time of the infamous movida Madrileña and the time Pedro Almódovar was starting to become the star of post-Franco Spanish cinema. However, he stayed loyal to his art, making another slow film set during the early years of Franco (this time the 1950’s). While it’s much more accessible to viewers (more explicit than implicit storytelling), it still features stunning cinematography and a great story about a small family living in the north of Spain. It was filmed in Estella, Navarra and Ezcaray, La Rioja and is based on a short story by Adelaida García Morales.

Estrella (Star in Spanish) is eight when her family relocates from the south of Spain to the north. Her grandmother and a family friend visit her for her first communion, and she falls in love with the South. Her dad has a secret, an ex lover who is now a small-time actress, although Estrella doesn’t come to understand this until later. She just wonders who “Irene Ríos” is. The movie skips a few years with her riding her bike into the distance with a puppy, and then returning with the adult dog. She learns the truth about her father and the film ends with her decision to visit the south (Sevilla).

If the ending seems abrupt, it’s because Erice orginally had planned to film her visit to the South. The producer decided the film worked as it was, and the second half wasn’t filmed.  It was voted the sixth best Spanish film in 1996’s celebration of 100 years of movies.

It’s not the official trailer, but here is a short montage of scenes from the film.

He also completed a documentary in 1992, El sol del membrillo (Dream of Light) about a painter’s (Antonio López) quest to paint a quince tree. Perhaps a metaphor of this film would be watching a man paint a tree for two hours is similar to watching Spain try to emerge victorious from the “catastrophe of 1898” and still trying in 2015. [/end internet sarcasm font].

Erice’s films speak volumes about Francoist-era Spain and offer an alternative to the typical Spanish film one might have in mind after seeing Almódovar, de la Iglesia, Buñuel or Ocho Apellidos Vascos.

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3 thoughts on “Spanish Director Spotlight: Victor Erice

  1. Pingback: Julio Medem Spotlight Parte 2: Vacas | setmeravelles

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