Monday, October 05, 2009

Benacerraf’s Araya

Once a vital outpost of the Spanish Empire, Venezuela’s Araya peninsula was a rugged, forbidding locale, whose residents struggled daily to eke out a subsistence living. Apparently unchanged for centuries, modernization was finally reaching this remote land in the late 1950’s, when the Parisian educated Venezuelan filmmaker Margot Benacerraf documented their hard way of life in her difficult to classify “tone poem,” Araya (trailer here), which finally receives its inaugural New York theatrical run this Wednesday, five decades after sharing the Fiprisci Critics’ Award with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival.

The Araya region was defined by a relationship to the sea that brings to mind Coleridge’s verse. The villagers’ livelihood, hardscrabble as it might have been, derived entirely from the water—specifically through fishing and harvesting the salt marshes. Indeed, it was their plentiful supply of formerly precious salt that made Araya such a valuable colonial property centuries ago. Yet the plumbing-less Araya residents were dependent on the tanker truck that regularly supplied their only potable water.

Though Benacerraf faithfully records the harsh realities of life on the peninsula, it is debatable whether Araya can rightly be classified a documentary. While everyone in the film was indeed an actual Araya resident, she carefully casted villagers for their specific “roles” within her story of a day-in-the-life of the region.

The nature of the salt marsh work immortalized through Benacerraf’s lens was clearly laborious, even toxic, but the mood of Araya is generally languid. Guy Bernard’s romantic score never sounds a discordant note until late in the film, when trucks and machinery suddenly invade Araya, threatening the traditional methods of salt harvesting.

If there was ever a region desperately in need of modernization, Araya seemed to be it. Yet throughout the film, Benacerraf essentially fetishizes her subjects’ extreme poverty and constant toil. With cinematographer Giusseppe Nisoli, she creates some striking black-and-white imagery, but her lovingly framed shots of shirtless workers feel more akin to contemporary fashion commercials than socially minded filmmaking.

Araya is undeniably a beautifully crafted film, but the extent to which Benacerraf objectifies her subjects is ultimately quite problematic. Despite its initial acclaim at Cannes, Araya was never well distributed in any market. Periodically, fate would rescue the film from oblivion, only to consign it back into obscurity just as quickly. It is certainly a film of legitimate historical significance (particularly to students of Latin American cinema), but most contemporary audiences will simply regard it as a curiosity. It opens Wednesday (10/7) at the IFC Film Center.