Come Towards the Light: The Films of Victor Erice
Everyone has the capacity to create and recreate within them. And a film doesn’t exist unless it is seen—if there are no eyes to look at the images, the images don’t exist. When I’ve finished a film, it’s no longer mine—it belongs to the people. I’m nothing more than an intermediary in the process.
—Victor Erice (1)
Victor Erice has directed just three features and two shorts in a little over thirty years (the shorts, included in portmanteau films, bookend the three features he has made roughly ten years apart). (2) In its studied and contemplative approach to cinema, as well as its meagre productivity, Erice’s career can be compared to that of Carl Dreyer and Terrence Malick. The connections to the work of these great, visionary filmmakers do not end there. Like Malick & Dreyer, Erice is a filmmaker who explores his environments through precise, lyrical, light-filled or filtered compositions. He also presents characters that are inseparable from or mired in particular times, spaces and historical moments. Erice’s first two films (like Malick’s) also feature strong, structurally central female characters forging their identity within masculine environments (a striving which often stages itself as act of speaking, of finding voice). (3) Although his films are artfully composed, Erice also shoots in a manner that, like Malick, is responsive to the sound-image possibilities and accidents that emerge on location. But whereas one can imagine, or even fantasise about, the philosophical questioning of Malick and the spiritual contemplation of Dreyer occupying them between films, Erice throws up another ‘picture’ all together. Although he actually has made his living writing film criticism, screenplays and directing for television (including a surprisingly large number of commercials) one would rather imagine, or at least easily conceive, that his films are the product of a deep, extended process of reflection, of repose, the outcome of an accretion of details and minute, precise observations captured over a sustained period of time (a process/practice suggested by the knowledge that he insisted on filming every day during the two-month shooting schedule of his third feature, The Quince Tree Sun —resorting to video when film stock, and the money for it, intermittently ran out).
It is unsurprising that Erice turned directly to the subject of painting (and the painter) in The Quince Tree Sun, making explicit—making it, in fact, the ostensible subject of the film—a preoccupation with light, observational detail and the shifting but subtle patterns and differences wrought by the passing of time. Formally the film contains some of the most languid and ‘sedentary’ dissolves in film history. In The Quince Tree Sun Erice’s cinema also moves closer to that of Abbas Kiarostami, mixing together specific fictionalised frameworks with the documentary materiality of everyday life, real-life characters and situations. The Quince Tree Sun also brings to the ‘surface’ many of the preoccupations which define Erice’s two previous films, including a fascination with the painterly qualities of light and studied, almost still-life observation. The most painterly or artisanal of filmmakers, his films often take on the impression of a collection of interlocking still lives set in motion.
In The Quince Tree Sun we are asked, gently, to contemplate the intense, but here somewhat dissipated, connection and difference between painting and cinema. We watch the painter (Antonio López Garcia, himself a profoundly quotidian painter) attempt to capture the play of light upon the leaves and fruit of a constantly evolving quince tree, while the filmmaker (Erice, one assumes, though he is never directly present in the film) attempts to document the dynamic processes of creating and ‘imagining,’ while simultaneously showing us the painstakingly serene activity of still-life painting. Inevitably, the film can’t capture enough detail and can’t crystallize the painter’s activity into a suitable closing or defining image; while the painting loses the dynamic of light (and life) in the process of committing the tree to the canvas (but it also captures something of it as well). Nevertheless, each, painting and cinema, goes some way toward capturing the essence of its subject. This tension between a medium of movement (and thus time) and stillness or permanence (and thus a different concept of time) preoccupies Erice’s cinema. Time and its registration can be seen as the key leitmotif of Erice’s cinema. A ‘time’ which Erice sees as endemic of artistic creation itself: “Time is present in every work of artistic creation because mankind seeks permanence.” (4) But like the painter’s work, his cinema is also one of process, what it captures moment-by-moment is as important as its ambiguous conclusions.
The quotation from Erice that opens this essay points us towards the experiential quality of his work, as well as the processes of creation and imagination encouraged by his films. In Erice’s cinema this idea is taken beyond the more obvious and commonly represented forms of artistic expression—even in The Quince Tree Sun the painter’s daily work is compared to that of a group of builders and the broader actions of the immediate world (which it also largely registers in changes and pulsations of light) which surrounds his walled garden. Both The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and The South (1983) follow characters who create an understanding of the world from the often fragmented and incoherent materials that come into the realm of their experience.
The Spirit of the Beehive is a film that is set—“Once upon a time… somewhere on the Castilla plain in about 1940”—in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. (5) It is less a film about the broad historical reality of this period and its events (it was made in the final, more open years of Franco’s rule) than its experiential, material impact on isolated individuals and communities. Its characters rarely converse, are introverted, isolated, and find occupation in various forms of what could be called metaphorical abstraction—the father’s metaphysical obsession with bees, the mother’s unexplained letters to a ‘lover,’ the young girl’s appropriation of the image and tale of Frankenstein’s monster to test her own dawning sense of identity, difference and mortality. This interiority, and the pain it expresses, as well as the secrets it never quite reveals and indistinct reverberations it creates, can also be seen as the political point of the film.
Similarly, in The South we watch a group of mostly disconnected individuals try to deal with the legacy of a receding past; the Civil War and the divisions it has forged within families and between generations. Although this film is a somewhat truncated version of Erice’s original vision—he conceived of a final section actually set and filmed in the ‘south’—its refusal to move outside the isolated northern community which the family inhabits, in a kind of exile, leaves open the potentiality for the processes of imagination and creative subjectivity that define Erice’s work (as well as his characters). In a scene reminiscent of the Stereoscope sequence in Malick’s Badlands (1973), Estrella, the young girl who is the ‘focus’ of the story, uses the material things that surround her to create an understanding and sense of the somewhat inconceivable world beyond her immediate experience. Because her parents rarely discuss the past, she has to extrapolate from the old-fashioned hand-coloured photographs she finds in a family album, or imagine her father’s past lover from a lobby card she picks up at the local cinema (as in The Spirit of the Beehive, cinema is used as a means to spark imagination and to create identity). The worlds of Erice’s films emerge as a collection of disconnected but connected signs—aural and visual—that enable the characters to come into being.
It is the look and sound of Erice’s films that is often their most remarkable and telling characteristic. His work is full of ambient, often isolated, perhaps not even adequately sourced, sounds. It is often these sounds which most clearly haunt and disturb the characters. These sounds are also an indication of a world outside of the explicitly framed—this is a cinema full of frames-within-frames, doorways, windows, metaphors of entrapment—and often boxed-in environments we are shown (gunshots, barking dogs, train whistles, vehicles shifting gear). Sound is often figured as a site of the imagination and the unknown, a trigger for processes of creativity, memory and identity formation. For example, early in The South the narrator tells of her first memory (assumedly ‘re’-constructed at a later time from a story told by her parents), in which her father mysteriously ‘designates’ her gender while she is still in the womb—the first of a series of uncanny connections that bind father and daughter together in this family romance. Thus, it is not just sounds but words that are central to the make up of the characters.
All three films contain sequences in which characters attempt to explain their feelings, actions and position in the world. This is hardly remarkable but these moments have a curious, particular quality in Erice’s cinema. In The Quince Tree Sun, these scenes operate as often quite delightful explanations for the everyday creative activities that we see, while both The South and The Spirit of the Beehive show how characters use words—written or spoken—to bring themselves into being or express a world from which they are excluded. These two films feature sequences in which characters are shown writing to long absent (and perhaps even non–existent) lovers, while it is Ana’s incantation in The Spirit of the Beehive—“I am Ana”—that helps crystallise the journey of identity, and being, that she undertakes. Sound also binds these characters in a way that counters or slightly breaks down their physical isolation. At the beginning of The Spirit of the Beehive the major characters are shown in their own worlds—the children Ana and Isabel watching James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), the mother writing a letter, the father enclosed in his bee-keeping attire. It is the soundtrack of Frankenstein, drifting out of the makeshift community cinema, that starts to bind together the experiences of the various characters (its simultaneous foreignness and familiarity, as well as its ability to float between spaces, a sign of its uncanniness).
The opening of The Spirit of the Beehive also tells us much about the isolation of the characters and their community, as well as the multiple effects that isolated images, sounds and cultural artefacts can have on people (the kind of process that Erice addresses in the quotation at the start of this essay). In Erice’s cinema this can be expanded outwards to an understanding of Spanish society on a more general level. The use of Frankenstein in The Spirit of the Beehive tells us much about how Erice views the cinema and its power (and, subsequently, about how he might view a broader modernity). Although his films are explicitly ‘sound–based’ they also hark back to the expressive sound–image relations possible in silent cinema (and some examples of early sound cinema as well). In many respects, it is the radically different cinema of Murnau that casts the greatest shadow over Erice’s work (as it also does for Malick). This is most explicit in the mix of documentary and fiction found in both Murnau’s Tabu (1931, with Robert Flaherty) and The Quince Tree Sun. But it is also found in the preoccupation with the qualities of light and the expressive possibilities of sound (as sound) found in both directors’ work. The imaginative and suggestive quality of this sound throughout Erice’s cinema links it further to the evocative suggestiveness and pictorialisation of sound created in Murnau’s late silent/early sound hybrid, Sunrise (1927).
The most remarked upon quality of Erice’s cinema is its visual dimension. His films are dominated by the juxtaposition of often stark long shots and beautifully composed and lit vignette– or tableau–like compositions. His camera moves intermittently, but usually only to reframe or follow the characters. Thus, his films do have a studied, contemplative quality on a compositional level (they are full of repeated set-ups and move between a sense of closeness and distance). The most remarkable element of his films’ visual dimension is the qualities of light that they capture—not unlike a painting by Vermeer or Valázquez (though modern, this also hints at the timeless, partly anachronistic quality of Erice’s cinema). This light is often sculptural, its physical dimensions affecting both the perception of the spectator and the actions of the characters. (For example, the browns, burnt yellows and oranges that dominate the bleak interior and exterior landscapes of The South express the muted anguish of the characters, but also seem to shape their literal movement in space.)
It is often reported that the cinematographer of The Spirit of the Beehive, the great Luis Cuadrado, had become virtually blind by the time he shot the film (relying upon his assistants to carry out his instructions). This detail tells us much about the physical qualities of light in Erice’s films. Though often beautiful on a purely aesthetic level—the chiaroscuro flickering candlelight in the pillowed exchanges of the children Ana and Isobel—the light (and colour) of the films generally is also something that you feel physically, the burnished quality of the images emanating a temperature, a season—predominantly autumnal—a sensibility. Like Cuadrado, I assume, we can actually feel this light. Erice’s films also document and favour small changes in composition, a technique that can often look like time-lapse photography. Like many of the great silent filmmakers, Erice is a master of the dissolve. But whereas such dissolves often have a complex meaning and purpose in the work of Sternberg, Murnau and Sjöström—forcing certain readings which don’t appear immediately on the ‘surface’—they are predominantly used by Erice to register minute changes in light and compositional detail. They communicate a sense of time passing—which is conventional—but predominantly through the small (detailed) shifts in pose, colour and light; of characters mired or rested in a particular environment.
Both The South and The Spirit of the Beehive are films about the experiential realities of characters, communities—and a country—in isolation. They each primarily focus on female characters attempting to forge their own identities within somewhat barren, chilly and mute environments. Erice’s films are also remarkable for the space they give to all of their characters—even the woman (played by Aurore Clément) only seen in the film-within-a-film in The South is able to express herself through the long letter she sends to Estrella’s father. This virtual dialectic, between specific, knowable entities/characters and the world that surrounds them, is carried over to a general understanding of the connections between images and sounds in Erice’s cinema. Thus, although many of the images and sounds of his films seem to partly exist for themselves—highlighted by the common use of the fade to black, which tends to isolate shots—they are also part of a rich fabric of associations. In regard to this, Erice’s films constantly play upon the tension between movement and stillness, ambulation and repose, the isolated observation and its macroscopic implications.
Erice’s films are also uncommonly preoccupied by death. It is death in both The Spirit of the Beehive and The South that allows the female protagonists to finally venture out into the world. Erice’s final feature film to date, The Quince Tree Sun—he began work on the stalled adaptation of Juan Marse’s The Shanghai Gesture in 1999—is a film of a more benign and relaxed character. Although the painter confronts a kind of death every day in the seasonal changes of the quince tree he tries to ‘capture,’ this is a film that is much more concerned with the gentle flurries of change and cyclical processes of renewal (which are also a kind of death). Towards the end of the film López poses for a painting by his wife. Laid out on a bed, his repose—and its representation—suggests a kind of death, a framing and stilling of a moment. Nevertheless, such intimations of mortality tell us little of the way in which life ebbs and flows through the film; a collection of moments, observations, contemplations and manipulations that make up the film and the painting. Rather than exploring the distinction between these two states, Erice’s films occupy a space in which, as Linda C. Ehrlich suggests, there is an “intermingling of life and death.” (6) In regard to this quality, as well as others, Erice’s cinema can be seen as profoundly interstitial. The film’s final gestures towards the materiality of filmmaking (we see a camera filming the artificially lit quince tree) and the seasonal rhythms of life (the tree is shown renewing itself in spring) could be regarded as representational clichés. And yet, both gestures seem right, totally in keeping with the patent simplicity and complexity of Erice’s work.
Erice reminds us of how much we have lost in a time when the rapture of cinema has fallen out of fashion. (7)
Los Desafios (The Challenges) (1970, episode)
El espiritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) (1973)
El Sur (The South) (1983)
El sol del membrillo (The Quince Tree Sun/Dream of Light) (1992)
Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (2002, episode)
La Morte Rouge (2006) short film
David Ansen, “The Spirit of the Beehive” in Kathy Schulz Huffhines (ed.), Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics’ Video Guide to Foreign Films, San Francisco, Mercury House, 1991, pp. 460-3
Luis O. Arata, “’I am Ana’: The Play of the Imagination in The Spirit of the Beehive,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 8.2, Spring 1983, pp. 27-33
Richard K. Curry, “Clarifying the Enigma: ‘Reading’ Víctor Erice’s El espíritu de la colmena,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 83, 1996, pp. 269-75
Marvin D’Lugo, “The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena)” in Frank M. Magill (ed.), Magill’s Survey of Cinema: Foreign Language Films, Englewood Cliffs, Salem Press, 1985, pp. 2858-62
Linda C. Ehrlich, “The Name of the Child: Cinema as Social Critique,” Film Criticism 2, 1990
Linda C. Ehrlich, “Interior Gardens: Victor Erice’s Dream of Light and the Bodegón Tradition,” Cinema Journal, 34.2,1995, pp. 22-36
Linda C. Ehrlich, An Open Window: The Cinema of Victor Erice, Scarecrow Press, 2000
John Gillett, “The Spirit of the Beehive,” Sight and Sound, 43.1, Winter 1973-74, p. 56
Gwynne Edwards, Indecent Exposures: Buñuel, Saura, Erice & Almodóvar, London, Boyers, 1995
Monte Hellman, “Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive,” Projections 4 1/2, London, Faber & Faber, 1995, pp. 84-6
William Johnson, “Dream of Light (El sol del mebrillo),” Film Quarterly, 46.3, Spring 1993, pp. 41-4
S. L. Martin-Marquez, “Monstrous Identity: Female Socialization in El espiritu de la colmena,” New Orleans Review, 2, 1996
Rikki Morgan, “Victor Erice: Painting the Sun,” Sight and Sound, 3.4 ns, April 1993, pp. 26-9
Kim Newman, “El espiritu de la colmena” in Nicolet V. Elert and Aruan Vasudevan (eds.), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers 1: Films. 3rd ed., Detroit, St. James Press, 1997, pp. 334-5
E. C. Riley, “The Story of Ana in El espíritu de la colmena,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 61, 1984, pp. 491-97
Paul Julian Smith, “Whispers and Rapture,” Sight and Sound, 3.4 ns, April 1993, pp. 28-9
Philip Strick, “El Sol de Membrillo (The Quince Tree Sun),” Sight and Sound, 3.4 ns April 1993, pp. 59-60
Compiled by author
Acquarello, “El Espiritu de la Comena” and “El Sol del Membrillo” Strictly Film School (2000)
Brief reviews of these two films.
Derek Malcolm, “Victor Erice: The Spirit of the Beehive. In the Shadow of Franco”, Guardian Unlimited, September 16, 1999
Article on The Spirit of the Beehive.
Film Directors: Articles on the Internet
Online articles on Erice can be found here. Just scroll down.
Linda M. Willem, “Text and Intertext: James Whale’s Frankenstein in Victor Erice’s El espiritu de la colmena”
Essay on the use of clips from Whale’s Frankenstein in El espiritu de la colmena.
Click here to search for Victor Erice DVDs, videos and books at
- Erice interviewed by Rikki Morgan, “Victor Erice: Painting the Sun,” Sight and Sound, 3.4 ns, April 1993, p. 28
- My observations in this essay are restricted to Erice’s three feature films. I haven’t seen either of his episodes for portmanteau films. Erice’s most recent film, The Trumpet, appears to continue many of the visual, thematic and temporal preoccupations of his feature films. Like The Spirit of the Beehive it is set in 1940, the year of Erice’s birth.
- Like Malick, Erice’s third feature film, The Quince Tree Sun, moves away from this female ‘subjectivity’ to explore the quintessentially masculine domain of modernist art (though it deals with this realm and character in a manner which deflates stereotypical gender distinctions).
- Erice quoted in Morgan, p. 27
- Perhaps coincidentally, the setting of The Spirit of the Beehive in the year of Erice’s birth is a fitting correlation for a film explicitly concerned with the origins of creativity, perception and identity.
- Linda C. Ehrlich, “Interior Gardens: Victor Erice’s Dream of Light and the Bodegón Tradition,” Cinema Journal, 34.2, 1995, pp. 22-36
- Paul Julian Smith, “Whispers and Rapture,” Sight and Sound, 3.4 ns, April 1993, p. 29