Araya (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Matt Losada

Araya's beautiful photography betrays a romantic and poetic rather than realist sensibility

Araya's beautiful photography betrays a romantic and poetic rather than realist sensibility

Directed by Margot Benacerraf; photography by Giuseppe Nisoli; text of voice-over: Pierre Seghers and Benacerraf; voice-over narration by José Ignacio Cabrujas; music by Guy Bernard and by the people of the Araya peninsula; edited by Benacerraf and Pierre Jalloud; sound by Jean Neny; restored by Scott MacQueen and Dennis Doros; DVD produced by D. Adrian Rothschild; DVD, B&W, 80 min., Spanish and optional French audio, with optional English subtitles, 1959. A Milestone Film and Video Release.

Margot Benacerraf’s 1959 film Araya portrays the people and place of the eastern Venezuelan peninsula of the same name. A bone-dry, harsh landscape—crystalline and spiny are words the images bring to mind—juts out into a rich ocean teeming with life, the only source of sustenance. In this world so starkly divided at the waterline, a small number of humans subsisted until the seventeenth century, when the Spanish arrived and set them to work extracting salt from the wide tidal flats that penetrate into the harsh dryness. InAraya, the particulars of primitive accumulation—the original violence by which the colonizers turned the means of subsistence into capital and the locals into laborers—are elided in favor of an almost epic account of the conquest as an occupation of an empty coast. Whatever the facts, from then on the inhabitants of the peninsula were subjected to strenuous and repetitive labors, digging, breaking, packaging, transporting, and loading the salt for export. Since all profits were exported, too, the labors continued unchanged from colonial times through independence and on to the twentieth century.

Araya shared the International Critics Prize at Cannes with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour in 1959, before disappearing from view and going unscreened until 1977. Its focus on the marginalized would seem to locate it as a precursor of the generation of Latin American filmmakers who in the 1960s used the medium to denounce social inequalities and militate for change, often by calling for violent revolution. But the differences between these and Benacerraf’s film are considerable. Araya not only refrains from militancy; its portrayal of the marginalized is also of an entirely different nature. Instead of focusing on the shocking ugliness of poverty’s effects on the bodies of those impoverished and exploited under neocolonial capitalism, as did Fernando Solanas, Jorge Sanjinés, Miguel Littín, and most other Latin American New Cinema filmmakers, Araya estheticizes the exploited worker, portraying muscular bodies straining against—and carefully framed by—a harsh landscape to raise the perfect geometry of pyramids of salt along the edge of wide expanses of still water.

Benacerraf’s esthetic is closer to the romanticizations of the working class and rural tradesmen by the earlier British documentarians John Grierson and Basil Wright than it is to a 1960s Latin American “Aesthetic of Hunger.” This phrase is the title of a 1965 essay in which the Brazilian Glauber Rocha calls for his fellow filmmakers to work against “formal exoticism that vulgarizes social problems,” and it reflects how in the New Cinema the ugliness of poverty is framed front and center, decidedly not stylized. In addition to avoiding the ugly, Benacerraf declines to explore the locals’ own voice, and except for their wonderful songs and the occasional glimpse of domesticity in which women and children are seen, the contributions from the Arayans are mostly limited to serving as objects of a distanced contemplation. The task of imposing some sobriety on the poetic beauty of the images falls to a ponderous voice-over in the third person—the text written by Benacerraf and the poet Pierre Seghers, pronounced with wonderful deep gravel by the playwright José Ignacio Cabrujas—that emphasizes the radical lack of freedom of the laborers.

In the context of Latin American cinema, the beauty of photographer Giuseppe Nisoli’s compositions is closer to the images Gabriel Figueroa shot for Emilio “El Indio” Fernández’s 1940s Mexican classics. But unlike those films, Araya’s esthetic does not feed into ideas of the nation and is in no way intended to cohere a Venezuelan pueblo around an idea. The strategy employed by Benacerraf—who studied in the early Fifties at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris—is instead that of humanizing the peninsula’s workers, those men and women who had been dehumanized by centuries of exploitative labor that denied them all but the sustenance needed to perpetuate their functioning as part of the salt-exporting machine.

In spite of its contradictions, Araya is a marvelous modernist portrait—“tone poem” is the usual label applied—of a place and its inhabitants. The film’s parallel montage, while temporally linear, cycles repeatedly through stunning images of places and activities—shifting between fishermen, domestic life, the labors of the salt workers and the landscape that surrounds them—and these repetitions alter time, creating the impression of an unchanging, atemporal present destined to outlast history itself, each day just like every other. Time turns geological as waves bring endless cycles of salt and gently lift and release countless generations of fish. Generation after generation of humans, too, is trapped in an unchanging cycle of hard labor in the salt and sun.

While the voice-over does not directly advocate for the betterment of their lot, the Araya Peninsula shown is clearly ripe for the arrival of progress. When mechanized modernity suddenly appears at the end of the film, leaving the fate of the workers undecided, the narrator limits himself to wondering: “Will the future be better than the present, after machines free man from his labors?” But the new technology represents an investment in the interest of the owners, not the workers, and fifty years of hindsight have since shown us that machines would not make existence better for the inhabitants of the peninsula. Freed from their labors, they are suddenly expendable. Their resources appropriated, they are unacknowledged by the state, cast out as useless by capital, and reduced to bare life. For most, the only option is to migrate to the city to join the proletariat, which opens the next chapter in Latin American history, that of the crowded metropolis seen as a jungle in the cinema in Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950), Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981), and the urban dystopia genre they inaugurated.

The DVD release of Araya by Milestone Film and Video also includes Benacerraf’s 1953 short Reverón, a documentary portrait of a Venezuelan modernist painter, Armando Reverón, which shares a similar structure with Araya. The twenty-three-minute film melds the arc of a single day with the lifetime artistic trajectory of Reverón, the light of each part of the day corresponding with that of a period in his work. His early paintings have a morning softness, which soon shifts into the burning midday sun of his “white period.” Of a wealthy urban family, as a young man Reverón dropped out to live on the coast and pursue his art, constructing a kind of modernist-primitive castle that mixes the horrifying—the life-size rag dolls that the painter used as models, multiplied by mirrors—with the beauty of tropical nature. The film’s images—accompanied by an unfortunately pedantic voice-over in English—provide the viewer a tour of the castle, a biographical account of Reverón, and a retrospective of his work, most notably his sun-imbibed landscapes. A surprisingly expressionist final sequence, freed from the voice-over, wonderfully dramatizes the painter in a tortured creative frenzy.

For those interested in Latin American film, the restoration and DVD release of Araya is as important as it is rare, since the production of this part of the world is sorely underrepresented in the catalogs of small superior labels (consider Criterion’s total of four releases of films that could be considered Latin American). Benacerraf herself can be heard on commentary tracks for both films, and three short documentaries are included. The first is a French production, directed by Antoine Mora, which brings Benacerraf back to the peninsula to find out what had become of the salt workers in the last half century. The second is a rather hagiographic television program on the filmmaker, and the last is a very enlightening recent interview in which she discusses the making of Araya, the philosophy behind her work, and her founding of the Venezuelan National Cinemateca. Milestone has done a wonderful job on the restoration of the films themselves—both the image and sound are excellent.

Matt Losada recently received his doctorate in Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. He teaches in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at San Diego State University.

To purchase Araya on DVD, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.