To discuss The Spirit of the Beehive, you must start with Ana Torrent. This was her first movie ... she was seven when it was released. In fairness, whenever you see a great performance by a child actor, you must tip your cap to the director, because getting a good performance out of a kid is a lot harder than it looks. So Victor Erice gets credit, too, especially since as far as I know, he is the one who cast Torrent to begin with. I'm of the school that thinks a low-key performance from a child actor is usually preferable to the kind of thing Shirley Temple used to do, and Torrent is most definitely low-key here. To focus this even further, it's Ana Torrent's eyes. They are bottomless ... they seem to see everything both on and beneath the surface, we can project just about anything into them, and just keeping Torrent from overacting during the times when we are looking into her eyes is brilliance.
The film is beautiful, both in the exteriors and the interiors, where the house in which the central family lives seems as endless as those in Sergio Leone Westerns. It's amazing to learn that the cinematographer, Luis Cuadrado, was going blind.
The emptiness of the family's house reflects the lack of interaction between the characters. The parents rarely speak to each other, and the two daughters are often left to their own devices, with only a housekeeper to offer an adult presence. Thus, the daughters, Ana and Isabel, have the only close relationship in the film. (And it's another sign of how young Torrent was, that the names of the family characters match their real-life names, because Torrent was confused by the difference between their names and their characters' names ... Erice just rewrote to match the names.)
The film takes place in 1940, just after Franco won the Civil War. The little town where the film takes place is full of buildings that seem to have gotten the short end of the stick during the war. One day, a traveling distributor comes to town to show the residents a movie: the 1931 James Whale version of Frankenstein. The excitement as the movies come to town is fascinating, reminding us that it wasn't always possible to call up any old movie on your phone. The film affects Ana quite deeply ... she isn't quite sure where reality ends and movie fantasy begins, and her older sister, in a combination of helping and teasing, only makes this worse. Somehow, when we look into Ana's eyes, we feel what she sees, and the world becomes more magical.
There is something to say about the influence of Franco on the film, and I confess I am not the one to talk about it. In the early 1970s, Spanish filmmakers still had to deal with state censorship, and they developed ways of making points about Francoism without being obvious. In this case, that method isn't clear to me, but that's on me, not on Erice. #111 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.