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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
In the Sweat of Thy Face
by Donald Levit

Between Caracas and Trinidad, the hammerhead snout-shaped peninsula arches into Venezuela’s Caribbean, its thinner, western T-bar Araya the sole twenty-four-hour location of Margot Benacerraf’s Araya. Acclaimed at 1959 Cannes as co-winner of the International Critics Award with Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the creative non-fiction received no more than cursory distribution, was not shown theatrically in the United States, and practically disappeared from sight. Continuing its invaluable ferreting out, restoring and (re)releasing of cinema treasures, Milestone Films has worked with experts in sharpening audio, finding and reintegrating missing frames, and stabilizing and improving prints for this fiftieth anniversary.

Esteemed by peers for long activism in cinema, notably the promotion of Latin American filmmakers and artists, Benacerraf has done only this film and the earlier Reverón, an “essay” on that compatriot painter’s creativity and insanity. Almost nowhere commented on or even listed, Araya is of a piece with Shindo’s more visible The Island, both dialogueless, stark-contrast black-and-white considerations of isolated humans in subsistence drudgery.

The Venezuelan-French production has been dubbed a “tone poem,” which says little more than pretty, art-house, maybe metaphorical. It is better to consider the compact eighty-two minutes as visual biblical parable, an artfully artless triptych built on sacred-mystical threes. Sea, barren Earth, and merciless Sun; three villages, three families whose toils differ but overlap; pre-dawn through morning, midday for rest, and late day into darkness the following one.

Working under primitive conditions during the four-week shoot, Benacerraf and cinematographer Giuseppe Nisoli formed the entire crew of two, recording sound separately, often at night, of local music and of the ubiquitous waves and wind. The insular screen communities are basically unchanged over a dozen and more generations, sandwiched by two invasions from advanced outside civilizations: subtitled narration opens with the arrival of Spaniards about 1500 and the construction of the today-crumbling fortress to protect the richness of the “island” in its salt, prized like gold for food preservation and used as wages instead of specie; and at the end twentieth-century machines arrive, steam shovels, earthmovers, cranes and conveyor belts.

The camera captures, but the voice does not remark, this latter, current incursion as easy Romantic symbol of the end of a way of life, unspeakable hard though it may be. No Wordsworthian grieve not, no setting sun, living air, blue sky -- just the foreshadowing of change following five centuries of days one alike another, that is, exactly like the one day of the film.

Narrational voice is if anything too insistent on this repetitive aspect, on the sameness of seven days a week with no hint of Sabbath, and on the brutal Sun and scorched aridity of an Earth that brings forth no fruit, leaving the fish of the Sea as the sole food source.

Edited from an original three hours, the story is scripted in that the representative life of the peninsula is condensed and that nameless locals assume rôles outside their real selves, e.g., the grandmother was actually not related, and the young couple in courtship disliked one another.

By relatively cooler early daylight, the males of one salinero family trudge baskets of skin-ulcering oro blanco del mar, white gold from the sea, to piles that become elongated pyramids of salt; another family’s men harvest the crystals from a shallow lagoon; and in La Sensitiva Adolfo Sánchez and crew sail out to lay and bring in fishing nets. Sons work with, and will succeed, fathers; one generation passeth, another cometh. Their mothers, wives and daughters make pottery without wheels, gather water and the scant kindling wood, sell fish, bear more children and bare breasts to suckle them.

The grind of this existence spares the babies for the moment and, on the screen at least, young Carmen, who gathers conches and coral and soundlessly accompanies grandma to the hilltop burial ground where, flowers unavailable, the shells are remembrances from the living left on graves of the dead, in eternal cycle.

Not a paean to the land, its inhabitants and unchanged lives with no luxury or reprieve, nor yet a visual exhibition of arresting facial planes nor facile photojournalism, objective Araya is what it is, just like its people and peninsula -- a moment, or centuries, that, too, will be gone when the wind passeth over it.

(Released by Milestone Films & Video; not rated by MPAA.)

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