4 stars (out of four)

"Spirit of the Beehive," the 1973 debut film of one of the world's great, neglected filmmakers, Spain's Victor Erice, is a work of sheer, entrancing beauty. It's a film that transports us back not just to the sights and sounds of childhood but to a core of sweet innocence and sometimes ignorant bliss. There's a brutal side to childhood, of course--and Erice shows part of that as well. But the images I think most people retain from the film, which, once seen, is not forgotten, are the golden and desolate Castilian plains on which it takes place, and the hauntingly lovely dark eyes of its 6-year-old heroine, Ana (played by the stunning child actress Ana Torrent.)

Erice's film, which is now being re-released by Janus in a restored and re-subtitled print, takes place in 1940, shortly after the Spanish Civil War. It centers around two little girls, Ana and her 10-year-old sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria), who live with their upper-middle-class parents Fernando (Fernando Fernan Gomez of Carlos Saura's films) and Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), who have lost their home and are now residents of a large farmhouse. The parents have barely adjusted to their new life; the little girls revel in it. We first see them rushing to a traveling cinema where they will see the film that will come to obsess Ana: the Spanish-dubbed version of James Whale's 1931 "Frankenstein," with Boris Karloff as the monster.

For little Ana, Frankenstein's monster may embody a power and rebellious will absent from her lazy home life--where her mother writes love letters to an absent (perhaps dead) lover and her father keeps bees. Searching for the monster, "finding" him briefly in the person of a young fugitive, she strikes her own note of rebellion. Meanwhile, in exquisitely composed long shots by Luis Cuadrado, in frames as painterly as Terrence Malick's ("Days of Heaven") and as austere as Carl Dreyer's ("Day of Wrath"), Erice shows us the world as a sensitive child might see it, full of possibility, rapture and danger. This is a great film, too little seen, by a director who works rarely but beautifully, making only about a film a decade ("El Sur," "Dream of Light"). They're worth the wait, though, none more than "Spirit of the Beehive."

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'The Spirit of the Beehive'

(In Spanish, with English subtitles.) Fri.-Thu., Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport. Call 773-871-6607 or visit www.musicboxtheatre.com. No MPAA rating: family (parents cautioned for suggestions of violence).