THE SALT OF THE EARTH – The Review
Last year’s bumper crop of engrossing art documentary feature films included one set in the world of photography called FINDING VIVIAN MAIER which went on to earn an Oscar nomination. It showcased the Chicago-area pictures taken by a nanny/ caregiver in the 1950’s to the 70’s which were discovered recently by a modern-day photog. In a way, the film was a mystery movie, investigating the largely unknown life of this hidden artist, In the new film THE SALT OF THE EARTH (also an Oscar nominee), there’s no such mystery, as its main subject has been known and celebrated for the past 40 years: Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. Plus, he never limited himself to his native land as he spans the globe in search of the drama of life.
As the film begins, we’re bombarded by remarkable black and white images of a gold mining dig down in South America. The dirt encrusted fortune seekers swarm the mountain side, often resembling a horde of ants enveloping a crumb. And Salgado is right in the thick of it, even as tempers flare and greed possess them all
And then it’s back to the present day as Salgado braves the harsh elements in order to document a somewhat primitive hidden far away from civilization. He offers the reluctant natives a chance to peer through the camera lens, to their wonder. Salgado himself has been witness to countless wonders over his seventy-plus years. We’re taken to his childhood home, a vast plantation farm land in Brazil and meet his parents, who try to understand their son’s great passions. At one time his main passion was economics and traveled to Paris for an education. But once he picked up a camera, his life changed. He met wife and art-partner Lelia and together they chronicled the student protests in Europe during the late sixties/ early seventies. Then, as the two began a family, they focused on certain subjects worthy , they believed, of world-wide attention. We see through his work the beauty of wildlife, in the frozen tundra, and the dusty trails of Africa. In one sequence we witness Salgado trying to remain calm and quiet as some of said wildlife starts to sniff about his tiny shelter/ photo hut (he almost begs the beasts to get closer to the small windows in order to snap a better pic).
But it’s all not just pretty pictures collected in a swanky coffee table-type book. Salgoda is in the thick of the devastating civil wars in the Sudan. And there’s the horrors of draught and starvation in Ethiopia, as we see countless images of emaciated children. Salgado relates with sadness, the story of a father bringing the corpse of his son to a burial ground, the father casually talking to a neighbor as though they were putting out the morning trash in time for pick-up. For one sequence we see the results of his travels to the Iraq, just after the first Gulf War, when oil refineries were set ablaze. These images of the fire fighters (intercut with news footage) are astounding. We can almost feel the unbearable heat as the sludge-covered warriors face an almost unstoppable foe.
Internationaly famous film maker Wim Wenders (who also co-directed this film) joined Salgado on his excursions several years ago and becomes a narrator and interview subject. Wife Leila also contributes her musings on their long marriage. And we see her helping to co-ordinate his new projects and travels. One of their projects, son Juliano (the film’s other director), tells stories of his father’s long absences (almost a ghost parent) growing up, but all bitterness evaporates as the two men become partners and close confidants. Finally the film comes full circle in its last moments as Salgado returns to the family homestead. After so many images of despair, the story concludes on an upbeat, hopeful note as he helps bring new life to the barren earth. Life will grow and thrive once again. All this is accentuated by the soothing, subtle music score by Laurent Petitgrand. THE SALT OF THE EARTH tells of an amazing life through hundred of unforgettable images. You’ll have much to appreciate as you savor the next collection from this remarkable artist.
4 Out of 5