Directed by Margot Benacerraf
The elements—sun, wind, sea—and an elemental way of life take center stage in Margot Benacerraf’s Araya, a 1959 Cannes prizewinner only now getting a stateside commercial release in a new restoration. The film’s austere setting, surveyed by stunning pans, is the remote Venezuelan peninsula of the title, where for the past half-millennium inhabitants have been extracting salt from marshes by hand and piling it into enormous white pyramids. The prospect of industrialization suddenly looms in the final frames of the film, but the idea that this arduous and simple life has remained exactly the same throughout the centuries for these stark and weathered people—whose voices are mostly excluded from the film by Benacerraf in favor of an omniscient narrator who bloviates about “gesture cycles”—is obviously a condescending one. Thankfully, Araya demonstrates more than the classic pitfalls of cultural anthropology.
Though the film presents itself as a record of the daily rhythms of a people living on geologic time, its closing credits coyly admit, “Here truth, maybe also poetry…” Araya calls to mind the coached ethnographies of Robert Flaherty and the more overt, but nonetheless stripped down, dramatizing of Roberto Rossellini’s episodic India Matri Bhumi (which premiered out of competition at Cannes in 1959, the same festival at which Araya won the International Critics’ Prize). However, the off-kilter geometries of some of cinematographer Giuseppe Nisoli’s framings, composed for maximum austerity, align Benacerraf stylistically with her more modernist contemporaries. Some of the depopulated seasides and vast skies that bookend the film suggest the volcanic isle where L’Avventura really gets under way. If it sounds like you must see this to believe it that is because you must: Araya is a singular film about a singular part of the world.
Opens October 9