Director: Margot Benacerra

Stars: José Ignacio Cabrujas, Laurent Terzieff

Release Company: Milestone Films

MPAA Rating: NR

It's often mused that some writers have just one novel lodged within; the same goes for many filmmakers. Margot Benacerra, for example, finished making films after crafting her second...her documentary Araya is so astonishingly beautiful and tightly constructed, it would be virtually impossible to top it.

Indeed, I've never seen such a film; it defies classification. Intended as a visual tone poem, it premiered at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival where it shared the International Critics Prize with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Classified as a documentary, it never got worldwide release like Resnais' film, but now at long last Milestone Films has restored and re-released it on DVD.

The source material is about as raw and barren as possible--an isolated peninsula jutting into the Caribbean off northern Venezuela. A landscape where little grows, a windswept sandy region continually scorched by a brutal sun, where its few inhabitants must depend solely on the sea for sustanance. Its only resources: salt and fish.

Discovered by the Spanish in 1500, they exploited the region for its rich salt marshes, relying on the locals to mine these riches by hand. For centuries this remote region remained among the most lucrative of New World destinations. The Spanish built a fort to protect their investment from pirates and smugglers before eventually abandoning the area. Ruins of the fort and it cannons remain as reminders on the arid peninsula.

Filmmaker Banacerraf artfully immerses us into this historical landscape via the very first black and white images, and we are plunged into a 24 hour period into the daily lives of the fishermen and salt workers (salineros). We follow three families (names unimportant) as we see them lug salt slabs from the marsh shallows, break them apart, dry the crystals under the sun, and dump baskets into giant salt pyramids to be hauled away. It's a process as rhythmic and unending as the waves of the ocean... a process that has been passed down from generation to generation over the past 450 years.

The sparse verbal descriptions supplied by Benacerraf and Pierre Seghers support the stunning visual imagery. Meditative and heartfelt without being overbearing, the narrative observes and poses natural querries about these people who live so closely to the Earth.

Long regarded as Venezuela's greatest film, this 1957 treasure deserves much wider recognition. An indicator--when asked to write about the film, Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda paid it the highest compliment:"I can't write a poem about a poem."

The film steadily unfolds and immerses the viewer seamlessly into the daily rhythms of the people, but the visual shots are so perfectly framed and the narrative so tightly constructed it just defies being a totally natural "documentary." That's where Banacerraf's filmmaking craft comes in.

Not from the Robert Drew school of documentary filmmaking--it's much closer to Robert Lafferty's neorealistic work in Nanook of the North. Banacerraf starts by observing but then refines and stages shots for artistic purposes. Thus, a woman placing a basket of fish on top of her head may do 25 takes to make sure all goes well--that the basket balances perfectly, that the wind doesn't blow her hair askance. Or she makes sure that the four bare-chested young men beating salt chunks with wooden sticks all have uniformly handsome torsos and all swing harmoniously together.

Benacerraf's timing for the project is perfect, as she was able to capture the daily lives of the traditional salt workers just as industrialism was approaching the region. In fact, images of the initial dynamiting of the area provides a profound contrast for the film's overall tone. If such a remote and barren area cannot excape industrial exploitation, what hope remains for the rest of the planet?

Kudos to Milestone Files for rescuing this missing masterpiece from oblivion. Now over 50 years old, Araya remains timeless--as engrossing and artistically crafted as any art house worthy film screened during the last decade.

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