The restoration of Margot Benacerraf’s brilliant 1959 tone poem ARAYA, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the film’s first showing at the Cannes Film Festival, will change the face of Latin American film history. Although it shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, ARAYA was never picked up for widespread distribution. Rarely shown, this masterpiece was largely forgotten by the film world. Milestone’s North American theatrical premiere and worldwide release in 2009 will give audiences the chance to rediscover Benacerraf — a powerful and distinctive voice in the history of cinema.
Benacerraf’s film portrays a day in the life of three families living in one of the harshest places on earth — Araya, an arid peninsula in northeastern Venezuela. For 450 years, since its discovery by the Spanish, the region’s salt was manually collected and stacked into glowing white pyramids. Overlooking the area, a 17th-century fortress built to protect against pirate raids stood as a reminder of the days when the mineral was worth as much as gold and great fortunes were made in the salt trade. Benacerraf captures the grueling work of these salineros in breathtaking high-contrast black-and-white images. Her camera gracefully pans and glides to reveal the landscape and the people of the peninsula. All night, the Pereda family toils in the salt marshes. In the morning, the Salaz clan arrives to load and stack the crystals under the hot brutal sun. Down the coastline, the Ortiz family fish and tend their nets, while the youngest member, Carmen, collects seashells and coral.
When it first premiered, ARAYA was compared to Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema. But according to the filmmaker, the film was never meant to be a documentary — it was meticulously planned as a tone poem — a composition in which cinematography, music, sound and language combine to create a moving and magical exploration of a desolate place and the remarkable people who lived there. ARAYA is a film of such lasting beauty that Jean Renoir told Benacerraf, “Above all … don’t cut a single image!”
ARAYA is one of Milestone’s most exciting discoveries, on par with our earlier treasures, Killer of Sheep, The Exiles and especially I Am Cuba with which it shares many qualities: a stunning richness of image, sheer poetry of sound and visuals, and a profound respect for the people of Araya — ARAYA will have just as pronounced an influence on the next generation of filmmakers. (arayafilm.com)