Monday, October 5, 2009

ARAYA, Margot Benacerraf's fifty-year-old "tone poem" arrives, at last, via Milestone

What a pleasure it is to see ARAYA, the extraordinary, utter-
ly gorgeous film by Margot Benacerraf (shown below) -- even if it is arriving a half-century late. Something this unusual -- the subject and the filming of it -- is found rarely, if at all, so thanks be to Milestone (the company that last year gave us The Exiles) for the gift.

I realize that we film buffs tend to go a

bit ga-ga about black-and-white cinematography -- probably because we see so little of it that's new anymore. Until you've viewed Araya, with its pristine images and their stunning gradations from white to black -- including seemingly every subtle gray in between -- you haven't really experi-
enced the thing. Granted, Benacerraf's title location, a peninsula in northeastern Venezuela, would seem a perfect spot for the camera. Her subject, too, could hardly be more au courant: sea salt -- that staple on every gourmet table today. But this film was made fifty years ago, when every table with which I was acquainted offered that round, dark blue cardboard container with the little girl in the raincoat and the motto, "When it rains, it pours."

I knew that sea salt came from the sea, of course; other than that, I had no idea how it was harvested -- back then, at least: By film's end we get a taste of how times would soon change when machinery entered the picture. Ms Benacerraf's images (the camera work is by the never-heard-from-again Giuseppe Nisoli), as indelible as they are beautiful, capture three generations of a family whose lives are so thoroughly wrapped around this salt that there is no escape -- nor even the idea of one. Watch these people's near-perfect posture as they stoop to pick up and then carry their loads of salt; like so much else in this film, it's a thing of transcendent beauty, without a trace of condescension. So perfect, in fact, does Araya often appear that when the eye catches a long shot that seems a bit unfocused, it's a shock.

As the film's narrator points out (perhaps a couple of times too many: the narration does grow a tad repetitive), the sea and its largess is all these people know: its salt, fish and shells. There is some pottery work done by one old woman in an open kiln, but mostly the populace subsists on fish, corn, salt and water, with the latter having to be brought in by truck. Araya seems to be a place of few words, though the audience may learn some interesting facts along the way. Do you know the derivation of the word "salary," for instance? You will.

By the end of this little more than one-hour movie, the approach of the new machines seems almost as shocking as would be the introduction of CGI effects. That is how lulled into the experience of time past we've become. The credits at the end of the film are sparse indeed: So few people collaborated on this sublime piece of art that it puts to shame the outrageous amount of crew and cost of most films we see today.

Araya opens for a two-week run at New York City's IFC Center on Wednesday, October 7.
(All photos are from the film itself, except that of Ms Benacerraf.)


Weezy said...

I heard about this movie through NPR

Glad you got a chance to watch it. Looks GORGEOUS.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Weezy. Araya IS -- whew -- gorgeous! Try to see it, either now, if it's playing near you, or eventualy on DVD -- which is how I saw it. If it looks any better on the big screen than it did on DVD, then this film is something near miraculous.

I see your blog is for invited readers only? How does one get that invite?