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Desolation Never Looked as Good as in Araya

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Araya
Directed by Margot Benacerraf
Milestone Films
Opens October 7, IFC Center

After the recent successes of Killer of Sheep and The Exiles, the good folks at Milestone Films keep the re-discovery bonanza rolling, restoring and releasing another lost film, Margot Benacerraf's 1959 Cannes prizewinner, Araya, for its inaugural stateside run. And while they haven't hit the masterpiece trifecta, Araya is another stunningly photographed document of a singular culture. Benacerraf's work of poeticized ethnography begins in the wispy clouds before swooping down on the barren terrain of the titular peninsula, located in northern Venezuela. "All was desolation," intones the narrator, but desolation never looked so good. Neither did backbreaking labor. Covering the course of a single day, Benacerraf follows the lives of Araya's inhabitants as they stack massive pyramids of salt—the "white gold" that is the region's chief resource—against the sky, or roam the shantytowns selling fish, while the oozy narration rehashes key phrases ("All life comes from the sea") to emphasize the circularity of the subject's existence. As photographed by Giuseppe Nisoli, Araya is an ugly-beautiful wonderland, but does the film unduly aestheticize poverty? Well, obviously, and never more so than in a repeated image of four bare-chested boys beating salt piles in unison. Still, Benacerraf seems determined to show the human face—not just the chiseled physique—of this place.

 
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