Milestone, 1959, Not Rated

Jul 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm

In 1959, Venezuelan filmmaker Margot Benacerraf’s Araya shared the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Resnais’ film was a sensation heralding a new cinema, a New Wave. Today, it’s widely recognized as a classic of world cinema.

But what happened to Araya? It disappeared.

After failing to grab distribution, Araya fell into obscurity. It was a film discussed, but never seen. A film of legends.

Until now, thanks for Milestone Films.

In 2009, the venerable distributor — resurrector of forgotten gems The Exiles, Killer of Sheep and more — gave the classic a proper theatrical release, where it received apropos best-of lauds on multiple year-end critics lists 50 years after its production.

Milestone’s subsequent DVD release promises to follow suit, giving an unjustly overlooked wonder further second life via the home video market.

Benacerraf’s film is a wonderful mix of documentary and poetic realism set in Araya, a peninsula in northeastern Venezuela. Araya is a wasteland, a desolate expanse surrounded by the unforgiving sea. The sea gives Araya its life, though, having provided a wealth of harvestable salt since the region’s “discovery” by the Spanish centuries ago.

Benacceraf brilliantly charts Araya’s history, from its ascent from the ocean through the rise and fall of Spanish occupation up through the present, settling on several families who have lived and worked on the island for generations. Working in 24-hour shifts, the families mine the salt, piling it into stories-high pyramids for overseas trade, or fish the surrounding waters for food as the soil supports little life.

Benacceraf follows the cycle of these lives, letting their constant work — shoveling and pounding the salt, casting nets, selling the fish — create hypnotic rhythms that parallel the history of Araya, where man breaks himself to break the land. Exquisite, crisp black-and-white cinematography and a pounding soundtrack solidify the mood.

The bonus features help much to expose Benacceraf as an auteur of note devoted to Venezuela and its cinema, including her 1953 short, Reveron; commentaries on both Araya and Reveron; a short documentary on her life and work; and TV interviews. Essential. Grade: A