Margot Benacerraf’s Araya is a film that stops you in your tracks, and its hypnotic beauty makes its 50-year period of obscurity almost unfathomable. After sharing the International Critics Prize at Cannes with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour in 1959, Araya was little heard from again until a 2009 theatrical release.
The cinema saviors at Milestone Films (also responsible for unearthing Charles Burnett’s similarly arresting Killer of Sheep in 2007) have followed up their theatrical run of Araya with a superb DVD release of the film.
Benacerraf’s film exists somewhere in the plane between documentary and fiction with its images of a small town on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. Since its discovery by the Spanish in the 1500s, the peninsula has been mined for its abundant salt resources, with massive salt pyramids being built on the land.
Araya looks at one day on the peninsula, where men’s actions largely went unchanged for more than 400 years. Laborers toil away, gathering salt from the sea by hand, washing it and depositing it on the shore. It’s a brutal, unrelenting task. Others in the town look to the sea for fish, and the society largely depends on these two resources.
The glorious black-and-white images captured by Benacerraf and cinematographer Giuseppe Nisoli are both fascinating from an anthropological perspective and stunning for their expression of pure cinema. It’s visual poetry that emphasizes the repetitive and almost timeless nature of the Venezuelans’ struggle in this remote part of the earth.
Narration written by Benacerraf and French poet Pierre Seghers looks to add an element of spoken word poetry to the film, with elliptical turns of phrase describing the miners’ lives. It’s haunting in its own way, although I often felt myself longing for the images and natural sound to simply exist on their own. There’s no dialogue in Araya — it hardly needs it — and while the narration aids our understanding of the events, the images beg to stand on their own.
Nevertheless, Araya is an unforgettable cinematic experience. It’s a wonder the film wasn’t canonized almost immediately, but Milestone’s rescue may lead to that belated and well-deserved honor.
In addition to presenting the film with a razor-sharp, detail-rich and nearly damage-free transfer, Milestone has compiled an impressive collection of extras, including Benacerraf’s 1953 documentary short Reveron about Venezuelan artist Armando Reveron. The disc also features a 2007 documentary about Benacerraf that sees her returning to Araya almost 50 years later. Two TV interviews with Benacerraf give more of her perspective, as do audio interviews that are presented as commentary tracks for Araya and Reveron.
The disc also includes the American theatrical trailer and PDFs of the press kit and a collection of on-set photos of the director.