Where to begin with Víctor Erice

With the upcoming release of his first movie in 30 years, we get you up to speed with one of the greatest living filmmakers: Spanish master of time and light Víctor Erice.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Why this might not seem so easy

Many of those filmgoers familiar with the work of the Spanish-Basque filmmaker Víctor Erice consider him one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. To many others, however, his name means nothing whatsoever. The problem is one of visibility – in terms both of the man himself, who is unusually reclusive for an acclaimed filmmaker, and of his output. For one thing, since he first found international success in 1973 with his debut feature The Spirit of the Beehive, he has managed to complete only three further features; indeed, his most recent, Close Your Eyes (2023), which premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, was made three decades after The Quince Tree Sun (1992). Not that he’d been inactive during that time; besides making several marvellous short films and some fascinating gallery installations, he had also written scripts for a number of features which sadly, for one reason or another, never got made.

José Coronado as Julio Arenas in Close Your Eyes
Close Your Eyes (2023)

But there is another reason for Erice’s undeservedly low profile: for some years now, only The Spirit of the Beehive and his second feature made a decade later, El sur (1983), have been available theatrically or on disc. They are joined now by Close Your Eyes, supreme proof that the artistry of this master of cinema, now 83, remains undiminished. Moreover, it is well worth trying to catch the other films when they turn up in retrospectives, since they are just as rewarding as the better known titles more readily available. The crucial thing to understand about Erice is that he only makes films which mean something important to him personally; the complete opposite of a director for hire, he has put as much effort and care into his short films and the ‘documentary’ The Quince Tree Sun as he has into the (slightly) more conventional features.

The best place to start – The Spirit of the Beehive

Though Close Your Eyes would be perfectly accessible to anyone unfamiliar with Erice’s work, it is probably a more fully rewarding experience for those who have managed to see some of his earlier movies. Indeed, it is his first two features which surely serve as the best introduction both to his lifelong preoccupations and to his distinctive cinematic style. Made while Franco was still alive, The Spirit of the Beehive is nevertheless a very eloquent study of the destructive consequences of civil war, particularly as experienced by a family sympathetic to the now defeated Republican cause. Set in a remote Castilian village in 1940, the film centres on a couple – who seem no longer able to communicate with one another on any significant level – and their two young daughters. Six-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent), confused about matters of life and death after seeing her first film (James Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein), comes to lead an especially troubled existence. 

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Thematically, the film was already indicative of Erice’s interests: the secrets and lies inherent in family life, the fears, anxieties and curiosities of childhood, the way individual lives are shaped by wider social, historical and cultural forces, and the power of cinema to stimulate, for better or worse, the imagination. Stylistically, too, the film felt wholly mature, with its measured, elliptical, allusive narrative, its painterly compositions, and its location of resonance and meaning not so much in dialogue as in the meticulous juxtaposition of sound and image.

What to watch next

El sur (1983)

El sur, though never completed as Erice planned (the producer withdrew funding during the shoot), is perhaps even more satisfying than its predecessor. Again, we witness events largely through the eyes of a girl, mesmerised but also mystified by her adored father, whose earlier life – something to do with political ideals, something to do with romantic longing – remains a matter of adolescent speculation. Set in northern Spain in the 1950s, the film depicts a world still suffering the repressive aftermath of political strife and upheaval; once more, the movies offer a potent alternative to the realities of everyday life… but to what end? Visually stunning, contemplative, quietly compassionate in its portrayal of lives tainted by feelings of loss and disappointment, the film is perhaps Erice’s very greatest.

Having seen either or both of these early masterpieces, you will probably be better prepared for the many subtleties of Close Your Eyes, a magisterial work that succeeds in its own right while also drawing on and developing themes from Erice’s previous projects, both completed and regrettably never brought to fruition. As always, it is a profoundly personal work, not least because it deals with a former filmmaker whose career stalled when an actor disappeared during the shoot of his (consequently unfinished) second feature, scenes from which bookend the main narrative (which deals, among other things, with the mystery of what happened to the actor). It’s a lengthy, leisurely film which, thanks to its richly detailed exploration of themes of memory, identity, loss and grief, never feels a minute too long. It is also, at times, extremely moving.

The Quince Tree Sun (1992)

Just as remarkable is The Quince Tree Sun, which may sound over-extended – for two and a quarter hours, it basically centres on the artist Antonio López working painstakingly on a picture of a quince tree in his garden – but which most certainly isn’t. A brilliantly insightful, witty and wise look at creativity, at the relationship between painting and film, at the inexorable effects of time’s passing, and at much, much more, it might also be seen as a kind of displaced self-portrait in its study of a meticulous perfectionist striving to turn the raw materials of existence into that strange phenomenon known as art. Painting and film do differ, but perhaps not that much.

If any doubts persist as to Erice’s greatness, the two short films Lifeline (2002) and La Morte rouge (2006) should dispel them. The former, chronicling 10 minutes in the life of a Basque farmhouse community in 1940 (the year of Erice’s birth), is an exquisitely elegant, subtly resonant meditation on life and death, war and peace, time and place. Arguably even finer is the autobiographical half-hour essay La Morte rouge, which uses the five-year-old Erice’s first experience of watching a film – a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie – as a springboard for a remarkably penetrating dissertation on his enduring preoccupations: childhood and adulthood, history and politics, anxiety and isolation, artifice and illusion, remembrance and change. Inexpensively made on video, it nevertheless belies its modest origins with a densely imaginative and perceptive train of cinematic thought.

Where not to start

The one work in Erice’s professional career that is undoubtedly not a good introduction to his highly distinctive talent is the episode he contributed to the 1969 portmanteau film The Challenges (Los desafíos), a few years before finding creative freedom with The Spirit of the Beehive. Erice himself regards it as a film primarily defined, like many compilations, by the aims of its producer; certainly its seemingly allegorical, semi-serious story about an American killing three young Spaniards feels wholly atypical. (One of the main characters is even a chimpanzee!) The other two directors who contributed to the piece – José Luis Egea and Claudio Guerín – are not well known; understandably, the film is seldom revived.

Erice-Kiarostami: Correspondences (2007)

Still, there are two further works by Erice well worth checking out. Broken Windows is a half-hour miniature made for the 2012 Portuguese portmanteau film Centro histórico. The other directors are Aki Kaurismäki, Pedro Costa and Manoel de Oliveira, although Erice’s contribution is by far the most satisfying. It consists of reminiscences by workers – told straight to camera – outlining their experiences at a now closed massive textiles factory. Not only does it highlight Erice’s abiding interest in the lives of ordinary people, but its final segment, a musical response to a blown-up old photograph of workers in the canteen, invites viewers to engage with sound and image by using their own imaginations. 

That was also a modus operandi favoured by Erice’s favourite modern filmmaker, the late Abbas Kiarostami; and indeed, Erice-Kiarostami: Correspondences, the series of 10 ‘video letters’ the two directors sent to one another from 2005 to 2007, should probably be a must-see for admirers of either director. Small-scale, playful, inventive, they reveal another side to Erice – and, of course, to his Iranian friend.

Close Your Eyes is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 12 April 2024.

Of Time and Light: The Films of Víctor Erice runs at BFI Southbank in March and April 2024.