Judge Bill Gibron was moved, and devastated, by this stirring documentary.
A thing of beauty is indeed a joy…forever.
Somewhere, in the remotest parts of Venezuela, under a broiling sun and unforgiving conditions, a group of workers sweat salt—literally. Since its discovery in the 1500s, Araya has been a major source of the common spice for most of the Hispanic (and later, entire) world. Before mechanization stepped in to destroy tradition, entire families would make their living at the mine, cutting the substance, breaking the minerals, and cleaning and carrying the final product to large pyramids along the shore. Then it's off to market, where each 140 lb. basket earns a token valued at…50 cents. Over the course of her majestic, magnificent film of the same name, director Margot Benacerraf illustrates the various human and natural elements of Araya in a stunning monochrome display. We learn of the families who float out into the water to gather up the salt. We see the men who rhythmically, ritualistically pound it into dust. We see the workers gathering and weighing. And we see the women back in the rundown shacks, doing what they can with the money earned while raising the next generation of miners.
You have probably never seen a movie as drop dead gorgeous (and depressing, contextually) as Araya. Called a "tone poem" by some or "moving paintings" by others, this is black and white cinematography at its most artistically and aesthetically spellbinding. This film just looks…amazing! From the depth of detail in the camerawork to the sinewed and muscled subject matter, this is a statement of staggering proportions, a visual feast that never once disappoints from an optical perspective. The story, on the other hand, is a tad too poetic and yet prosaic to make much of an impact. Yes, the struggles of these groups is horrific, and the last minute edition of the machine world into this realm of manual labor is dramatic, but Benacerraf finds herself with the same story just told in varying perspectives. One group tends the marsh. The other beats the minerals. The other breaks their skeletal backs carrying load after load up the hill. Sisyphus's plight in the underworld seems more humane. In addition, the rural poverty element is not astonishing. The evils of exploitation and paid slavery have never looked so good.
That's the main schism here, like offering up a visually opulent overview of the Holocaust. While the situation in Araya is most definitely not as noxious as Hitler's fiendish Final Solution, the treatment of these people and what they have to endure counteracts any entertainment value in the visuals. It's akin to watching Fantasia or Allegro Non Troppo where animal cruelty is the main theme. Once again, there's no suggestion of death or destruction beyond the hopelessness of the situation and everything has a viable two-tone patina. And this is an amazing looking movie. But the message, even for 1959, is practically medieval. The stoic narration with its bows to lyricism and meter doesn't help, since it tries to turn everything—a naked child playing in the dirt, a tired old man breaking his back—into a sonnet by Shelley. Yet with all these potential negatives, Benacerraf still creates a masterpiece. Her eye is so keen and her sense of composition so flawless that even the most glaring defects dim in the projector's light. Araya may not have a happy message, but its appearance will function to flatten all concerns.
Milestone, who made their name with sensational DVD releases of films like Killer of Sheep and The Exiles unearths another forgotten and overlooked gem here, and the video remaster is eye-popping. You will constantly be searching the floor for your jaw after seeing this astonishing 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The contrasts are sharp without being blatant and the black and white is moderated in equally lovely shades of grey. The Dolby Digital Mono is nothing special, but that's okay since this is a more optical than aural wonder. Finally, the film is fleshed out with a few exciting extras, including a commentary track (very insightful), a short film by Benacerraf on the artist Armando Julio Reverón, a couple of TV interviews, a 2007 documentary on the filmmaker and her work, and a collection of DVD-Rom materials. All of this really helps support the overall experience with this effort.
There is no denying the beauty and the majesty inherent in Araya. While the subject matter definitely stings, the presentation is almost pristine.
Not guilty. A gorgeous and often sad documentary of a bygone era.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
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