Review: 'Araya'

"Araya" has been hidden in plain sight for decades, which is especially ironic for a film whose glories are so visual. A critical sensation in Europe when it was released half a century ago, this insistently poetic quasi-documentary has until now not had the kind of proper American release that could put it on the map for domestic filmgoers.

In fact, it's been exactly 50 years since this Venezuelan film, directed by Margot Benacerraf, premiered at Cannes and ended up sharing the prestigious FIPRESCI, or International Critics Prize, with Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima, Mon Amour."

Shot with a minimal two-person crew (Benacerraf and cinematographer Giuseppi Nisoli), "Araya" is set on a Godforsaken Venezuelan peninsula so remote and barren that the director remembers that "going to Araya was like going to the moon."

The only reason anyone ever went to Araya, at least since 1500, when the Spaniards came upon it, was the presence of one of the world's premier salt marshes. In those days, the film's voice-over informs, salt was as valuable as gold; in fact, the word "salary" is derived for the Latin word for the salt used to pay soldiers.

Filmmaker Benacerraf was fascinated by the realization that even in the 1950s salt was still harvested as it had been for hundreds of years. Even the gestures of the salineros, the people of the salt, were unvarying for generations. She decided to record these rituals just as, the film hints, that way of life was coming to an end.

To do this, "Araya" focuses on three family groups among the ant-like hordes that work the salt. The Peredas labor at night, cutting huge chunks of salt from the marshes. The Salazar family takes over during the day, drying the salt, stacking it into huge, almost alien mountains of crystals. Down the coast, the Ortiz clan throws nets into the sea, because the ground is so barren that nothing can be grown on the peninsula.

It's the visuals that remain the most impressive aspect of "Araya," especially on the Nuart Theatre's big screen. Shot in high-contrast black and white, the film is stunning to look at, making great use of a sky so big it would make Montana jealous, not to mention those surreal pyramids of salt and all those people working on them.

Equally fascinating is the film's devotion to a style of filmmaking that might be called art-house neo-realism, a cinematic approach that has advanced and retreated many times over the years.

In addition to the look of the film, the most noticeable thing about "Araya" is the lush language of its voice-over, language that led the director to consider the finished product a tone-poem more than a documentary. Lines like "all was desolation" and "of the marriage of sea and sun, salt was born" are not the exceptions, they are the rule.

That language also helps in the film's determination to create quasi-mythic proletariat figures out of the salineros, who are almost always shot adoringly from the ground looking up. Not that they don't deserve our adoration: scraping out a bare-bones existence in this hotter-than-hot hellhole would be almost beyond imagining if we didn't see it in front of us.

Going hand in hand with the directive nature of the voice-over is the director's belief in what she calls "a fictionalized documentary, scripted rather than spontaneous." Rather like Robert Flaherty in the landmarks "Nanook of the North" and "Man of Aran," Benacerraf used real people to tell a story of her own invention, the better to get at what she viewed as core truths. Although this makes "Araya" the apogee of a style of filmmaking that's fallen out of favor, it cares so passionately about its subjects that you will as well.