Review: 'Araya'

Gem of a documentary tracks the hard life of salt workers on a bleak Venezuelan peninsula in the late 1950s.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Are you one of those moviegoers who likes discovering forgotten gems? Have I got a jewel for you.

In 1959, Margot Benacerraf, a 32-year-old Venezuelan, premièred her semidocumentary "Araya" at the Cannes film festival and held her own with the likes of Luis Buñuel's "Nazarín," François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" and Alain Resnais's "Hiroshima Mon Amour," with which it shared the international critics prize.

Despite its accolades, Benacerraf's 82-minute black-and-white film was never widely seen. It was first distributed in France, where she studied film, in 1967, and did not première in Venezuela until 1977. It played a few American cities in 1987 as a part of a Latin American film series. Thanks to its current distributor, Milestone Films, which supervised its restoration, "Araya" can now be seen in its complete form for the first time since its initial release.

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One reason for the film's dismal distribution is its forbidding subject – 24 hours in the life cycle of a barren Caribbean peninsula called Araya in northern Venezuela. Its salt marshes had been prized by the Spaniards ever since 1500.

When Benacerraf made her film, the salt was still being excavated and transported by hand, as it had been for centuries, but new industrial methods were about to take over. "Araya" focuses on the peninsula's salineros (salt workers) and three families from three villages.

I call this film a "semidocumentary" because Benacerraf was not interested in garden-variety documentary truth. The various "family" members were, in fact, not necessarily related to one another, and she often scripted what they would do and say (although there is very little spoken dialogue). Before you go screaming to the documentary police, you might be interested to know that some of the most revered documentaries ever made, including Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North" and "Man of Aran," are replete with reenactments. Benacerraf was seeking, and achieves, a poetic evocation of Araya – one in which the bright white vistas and toiling bodies convey a timelessness.

I say this as someone who doesn't particularly appreciate movies where hard labor is depicted as epic and noble and photogenic. Nor do I think the encroachment of modern industrial methods is necessarily a tragedy. (They make hard labor a little less hard.) But Benacerraf, despite her extraordinary eye for composition, doesn't glamorize the workers. She poeticizes them while at the same time giving their arduousness its full measure. She turns Araya into an apotheosis of man's struggle to survive.

Shooting for four weeks with only a two-person crew, including her marvelous cinematographer, Giuseppe Nisoli, Benacerraf also captures musical traditions dating back to the 15th century. She recorded songs at night in people's huts, with the echoing sea as obbligato. She has a pantheistic appreciation for the sensuality underlying the cycles of life. There is a triumphalism in her approach. She is saying that one must not lose sight of life's lyricism even when – especially when – that life is a trial.

Benacerraf's film (which regrettably is marred by pretentious, pseudo-biblical narration) has its antecedents: not only Flaherty's films but also Luchino Visconti's "La Terra Trema," a neorealist drama about a poor Sicilian fishing village, and Georges Rouquier's "Farrebique," a poetic rendering of a French farm family through four seasons. In its effects, though, "Araya" is more otherworldly than those movies.

It's a strange, one-of-a-kind film that was to be Benacarraf's only full-length feature. Founding the Cineteca Nacional in 1966, she became a major force in the cultural life of Venezuela and remains so to this day. Grade: A

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