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A girl's graceful search for the supernatural

When it was made in 1973 , Victor Erice 's "The Spirit of the Beehive" was one of the rare films to take a child's inner life seriously. The movie, which has a newly struck print and opened yesterday at the Museum of Fine Arts, tells the tale of two sisters, Ana and Isabel , living in a small, almost empty Castilian village. The year is 1940, just after the Spanish Civil War. The girls' little town never saw battle, still it feels a little demoralized and looks ravaged and war-torn by association.

One afternoon, the girls attend a showing of a touring print of James Whale 's 1931 ``Frankenstein ," with Boris Karloff . The film is dubbed in Spanish, but its sequences of Karloff's monster innocently murdering that little girl and of the monster's death at the hands of the town are haunting in any language. Needless to say, Ana (Ana Torrent ), who's 6 years old and has serious eyes, has a hard time sleeping. But she's more curious than afraid. Why did the monster kill the girl? Is he still alive?

Isabel (Isabel Telleria ) is about 8 and passes off her sense of mischief as wisdom, telling Ana that the monster didn't actually die. In fact, his body was merely a temporary shell for his essence, which can be summoned at Ana's choosing. Naturally, Ana takes this as gospel and proceeds to look for the supernatural everywhere in her dusty, barren farm town. Maybe she finds it. Maybe she doesn't, but Erice supports her little quest for Frankenstein's monster, and when she puts her tiny shoe inside a larger, wider footprint, you do too. The movie, shot at the end of the Franco regime, doesn't ask you to believe in what she finds the way Steven Spielberg often does. We have to believe only in her belief. The picture is magic and realist but careful not to be a work of magic realism, despite how pregnant it is with metaphysical possibility.

``The Spirit of the Beehive" is often cited as the best Spanish movie of the 1970s. Saying that now burdens it with great expectations of lurid, melodramatic spectacle, of pomp and pageantry. In truth, this is a modest marvel of grace and framing that unfolds with the patience of a cloud and is driven more by wonder than pure emotion. It doesn't have the exuberance of Francois Truffaut 's ``Small Change ." Instead, it's that movie's antonym, yet just as wondrous.

Ana Torrent is not the most expressive child the movies have seen, but she is one of the most determined and devout-seeming. She would have fit perfectly in a Robert Bresson film or a cathedral. She belongs in pictures, but she could have thrived just as vividly in a pane of stained glass.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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