He studied law, political science, and economics at the University of Madrid. He also attended the Escuela Oficial de Cinematografia in 1963 to study film direction. He wrote film criticism and reviews for the Spanish film journal Nuestro Cine, and made a series of short films before making his first feature film, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a critical portrait of the rural Spain of the 1940s.
Geoff Andrew, in the Time Out Film Guide, praises Erice's contribution to Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (Lifeline) as "quite masterly", adding "it only makes you wish he worked more frequently". Excluding that short film, he has produced only three major works: The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, The Spirit of the Beehive), El Sur (1983, The South) and El Sol del Membrillo (1992, The Quince Tree Sun). The critical reception of his work both inside Spain and internationally has been almost unanimously enthusiastic, with many hailing his sparse contributions to cinema as visually poetic masterpieces. Critic Tony Rayns describes The Spirit of the Beehive as "a haunting mood piece that dispenses with plot and works its spells through intricate patterns of sound and image" and of El Sur it has been said that "Erice creates his film as a canvas, conjuring painterly images of slow dissolves and shafts of light that match Caravaggio in their power to animate a scene of stillness, or freeze one of mad movement."