In the beginning, there was salt. Tons of it, in fact, all waiting to be mined from the marshes of Araya, a peninsula located in northern Venezuela. Being the otherwise barren area’s chief—read: only—export, this natural resource was the cornerstone of local life. As this documentary’s baritone narrator relates, the coastal spot was once deemed so precious that a West Indian king was forced to build a wall around the region to protect it. Circa the mid-20th-century, however, Araya is just another seaside village where workers toil, fishermen cast nets, and peasant families live a proud but hardscrabble life.
In the hands of filmmaker Margot Benacerraf, of course, the town’s population is anything but South American just-folks; they’re mytho-lyrical figures made for heroic, low-angle shots against mountains of sodium minerals and gorgeous monochromatic skies. Thanks to Milestone Films’ restoration of this semiforgotten 1959 cine-essay (a cowinner of the Fipresci Critics’ Award at that year’s Cannes), the movie’s b&w images of craggy landscapes and shirtless young men have never looked more vibrant. A compadre of both Rossellini and Buñuel, Benacerraf has a knack for making neorealistic scenes of labor seem vaguely surreal (and vice versa), though you wonder if she’s exoticizing her subjects in the name of poetic license just a pinch too much.