Reviewer: Steve Dollar
Rating (out of 5): ****
Always the sun...the torpor...endless day and endless night of salt and sea, eternity of heat, the land without succor, forever beneath the arid stars, the pyramids of salt stacked in the night without end, oh Araya...Araya.
Yes, I'm making some fun at the expense of Jose Ignacio Cabruja's somber narration of Araya. The rediscovered 1959 documentary about a desert archipelago in northeastern Venezuela, whose salt reserves have made it a hot spot for pirates, conquistadors and traders since the 16th century, draws much of its tone from this voice-over. Cabruja didn't write the script, with its hypnotic rhythms and poetic loops of language, but he definitely gives it a grave, grandiose magnetism that sounds practically self-parodic today. Yet it's also one thing that makes the film truly gripping to watch.
Directed by Margot Benacerraf, the French-Venezuelan production depicts a day-in-the-life of a community of peasants whose livelihood comes from that salt, dredged up from the sea and painstakingly washed, dried, sacked and stacked, forming pyramids that line the cove where hundreds go back and forth, working around the clock.
The austere, if pristine, black-and-white cinematography takes in a monochrome expanse that matches the simple duality of this village's life: salt and sleep. The monotony of it all is offset by the ant-colony vigor of the workers, some of whom are individualized by the filmmakers, who introduce members of three different families in the narration without ever indicating any fourth-wall interruptions by the director or cameraman. Premiering at Cannes the same year as Hiroshima Mon Amour, with which it shared the International Critics' Prize, the project seems to bid for the family-of-man humanism (with a touch of Mondo Cane) as in National Geographic. The lyrical flourishes in service to descriptions of an extreme, hardscrabble existence also calls to mind Benacerraf's friend Luis Bunuel's Land Without Bread, without the tongue-in-cheek surrealist context.
Mostly, it's a stunning visual document, one where the rugged demands of do-or-die ritual labor are captured as a form of everyday heroism and natural fact. That this is a way of life that's existed unchanged for centuries suggests a hard-won battle of endurance, as man confronts nature on its own terms and abides. There's no water in the ground, but the sea provides everything for those willing to dive in, and for all us latter-day urbanites gassing on about some new iPhone app, it's a useful reminder of human existence's grittier verities.
Noble as I am sure Ms. Benacerraf's intentions were, Araya also anticipates such cheezoid geo-eco-docs as Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, which looks at similar scenarios and turns them into bumper sticker banalities. In fact, though, she seems a kindred spirit with the great documentarian Joris Ivens, seeking sublime aesthetic beauty in the struggle of working men and women while also offering a compassionate vision of their lives.
After Jean Renoir saw the film, he told Benacerraf, "Above all, don't cut a single image!"
Milestone Films' restoration has yielded a remarkably clean and nuanced image. The DVD includes a generous assortment of extras, including the director's commentary, a 2001 interview, her short film "Reveron," and a short documentary about her return to Araya – where the industrial age arrives at the end of the film, as machines begin to replace the villagers in the salt harvest, marking a very real sea change.
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