For Robert J. Flaherty the explorer, the world belongs to the elements, all people can do is live on them, bravely and precariously. The Aran Isles, "three wastes of rock" off the Irish coast, are the jagged setting ("not even soil," a title card exclaims), the raging ocean governs all, it gives and it takes away. Docking a ship is an ordeal, but the Man of Aran (Colman "Tiger" King) braves the waves and his fishing expedition makes it back to the shores, barely; the Wife (Maggie Dirrane) balances cradle and cooking, the Son (Mickleen Dillane) plucks a small crab from a pool of seaweed and stashes it in his cap, later to use it as the bait at the end of a fishing line casually dropped from the edge of the precipice. Humanity's awe at Nature and the need to conquer it are crystallized (one iconic image has a tiny human figure hammering away atop a mountain of stone), and the basking shark that materializes mid-film provides Flaherty with an ideal behemoth -- the waters are transparent one moment and impenetrable the next, the mammoth fin circles the harpooning boat but the beast nevertheless ends in the villagers' cauldron, defeated by the islanders' diligence and by the director's dogged montage. The gray severity of the location won the approval of John Grierson, who saw cinema as a symposium of dour, manly themes yet missed the irony of Flaherty's downright Hitchcockian use of performers here. No less than Nanook, the film is a canny blend of observation and creation, "documentary" drama and truth flowing from both subject and the camera's two-way contemplation. The material looks back to Griffith's The Unchanging Sea and ahead to La Terra Trema, Stromboli, Huston's Moby Dick; Powell's The Edge of the World offers a cogent analysis, elucidating the lyricism that Flaherty hints at in the low-angled final close-ups, with the unyielding sea below, the sky above, and the family's survival at the center of the screen. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce