The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribeiro Salgado/Wim Wenders, 2014)
Winner of the “Un Certain Regard” Special Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and a 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature, The Salt of the Earth (which I saw at this year’s SXSW Festival) is an ethereally beautiful tribute to renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Co-directed by Wim Wenders – prolific maker of both fiction (Wings of Desire) and documentary (Buena Vista Social Club) films, much like his countryman Werner Herzog – and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (Nauru, an Island Adrift) – son of Sebastião – the movie takes us on a lyrical and affecting journey through time, place and the deep truths of our existence as we learn about Salgado’s work, its evolution, and its impact. Originally trained as an economist, Salgado has always highlighted important social issues – poverty, violence and genocide – in his stark black-and-white images, and we revisit all of the milestones of his career. Some of the photographs are incredibly graphic – especially those taken in the middle of the Rwandan atrocities in the 1990s – and though it can be difficult to look at them, seeing the work reminds us of the power and necessity of visual art to illuminate that which cannot be put into words. The Salt of the Earth – at times dreamy, at times shocking – is a film that everyone must see.
What I have always admired about Wenders is his ability to tell universally accessible stories that nevertheless feel both deeply personal and experimental. In Wings of Desire, the poetry-reciting melancholy angels that watch over Berlin force an often painfully slow aesthetic on the narrative – time is meaningless to them – but the viewer is still drawn into the touching love story at the center. In The Salt of the Earth, Wenders (with Salgado, Jr.) often places Salgado’s talking head – floating free from the body – in the middle of one of his photographs, making the artist truly one with his work. Now over 70 and mostly bald, Salgado still has fine sculpted features, and his charismatic bust looks like its own piece of art. It’s like listening to an ethereal deity meditate on the meaning of life.
The Salt of the Earth opens today at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre.