Drudgery shown in a poetic light in 1959’s ‘Araya’
In the late 1950s, Margot Benacerraf, a Paris-educated Venezuelan filmmaker, took a film crew to Araya, the peninsula that juts into the Caribbean from the coast of Venezuela. The Spaniards discovered it and for centuries the land was prized for its abundant salt; slave traders, pirates, and other unsavory forces coexisted there. Eventually, the lurid fanfare around the marketplace died down, but the native men and women who made their living working in and around the mines remained.
Benacerraf wanted to capture a day in the lives of the laborers. She also wanted to show the exploitation of the mining companies. Completed in 1959, “Araya’’ shared an international critics’ prize at the Cannes Film Festival with Alain Resnais’s atomic-age love story, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,’’ which became widely recognized as a cinematic landmark. Benacerraf’s film, meanwhile, became another work of art to languish in obscurity.
Once again the great Milestone Films has come to the rescue, bringing back “Araya’’ just as it brought us the restored and rediscovered “Killer of Sheep’’ and “The Exiles.’’
“Araya’’ is several rungs down from those masterpieces on the astonishment ladder. While it insists that everyday lives in Araya are full of drudgery and toil, the film fails to produce a single ugly image. In aiming for a kind of poetry, Benacerraf creates a discrepancy between the perceived hardship of manual labor and the natural gorgeousness of the seaside locale. The camera watches men shovel and haul chunks of white salt in wheelbarrows and baskets. They work in the shadow of giant pyramids of salt, which visually evoke ancient Egypt and the dehumanizing effort to produce superhuman monuments. The film then moves on to life in the village, with the women and children. Life in “Araya’’ hardly looks easy. But Benacerraf, who would become a decorated documentary filmmaker, relies on the narration she wrote with the French poet Pierre Seghers (José Ignacio Cabrujas recites it in Spanish) to put across a sense of misery that isn’t readily apparent in the handsome images.
“Araya,’’ which opens today at the Museum of Fine Arts, makes perfect sense alongside “Killer of Sheep’’ and “The Exiles.’’ All three films are about the poor and the marginalized (and all are shot in black and white). The difference is that “Araya’’ is also a work of interpolation, of looking in and interpreting for an audience rather than allowing the assembly of images to speak for itself. Like the late famed anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the movie wants to find a culture and explain it to the world. “Araya’’ finds a degree of romance in that discovery, and is weaker for it.