Stunning, moving, and, in the aggregate, almost overwhelming, The Salt of the Earth is an odyssey of a tragic observer; an intimate reverie on family and aesthetics; and a monumental tribute to a peerless talent that feels both grand and modest in scale. It’s a voyage into the surreal that stays in the mind and heart for many weeks.
Writer-director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire) delivers another generously appreciative fellow-artist collaboration with this luminous portrait of epic Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Wenders, hoping to illuminate not just these remarkable images but the man who made them, has found an intriguing way to capture both Salgado and his work in parallel. Wenders trains his camera on Salgado’s work and the result, though not without flaws, is an invigorating, interesting observation of the man and the medium. Along with Pina, this ode confirms Wenders’ mastery of the documentary form.
The Salt of the Earth is a unique artistic exhibition, with immaculately-filmed glimpses into social issues photographer Salgado’s thoughts and process. It holds nothing back in terms of volume: image after indelible image grabs our eye and grips our throat. Most of Salgado’s work is impeccable, and some of is mind-blowing: check out how he captures the blazing Iraqi oil fields, which he describes as “vast spectacle,” in 1991.
Far from a feel-good travelogue, The Salt of the Earth is a bleak and often harrowing journey that exposes both the strength and weakness of mankind. Salgado has never pretended to be a cockeyed optimist. He covers crippling famine in Tanzania, mass genocide in Rwanda, and forced displacement in the former Yugoslavia. Many of the photographs on view in The Salt of the Earth bear witness to great suffering. Ironically, there’s a kind of raw beauty in these images, even the ones that portray agony and death at its most grotesque. What they exalt is not the photographer’s eye, but the fearful humanity that unites us all.
By sharing the stories behind these split-second black-and-white moments and giving them even more dimension, The Salt of the Earth becomes a story of an artist rediscovering his muse, an unparalleled celebration of the photographic art of one remarkable contributor, and a fascinating meeting of minds and perspectives (the film is co-directed by Sebastião’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado). Decades are necessarily telescoped into 109 minutes, through carefully selected representative images.
Given its fractured-three-ways approach, it’s pleasantly surprising how smoothly The Salt of the Earth moves, how gracefully it switches back and forth between the personal and the objective. Even so, the film takes its time, and meanders in places. In retrospect, the path becomes clear: winding steadily towards home. Suffused with Salgado’s anguish over the state of our species, and our planet, it extends the notion of friends and family to include every citizen of the world.
In some ways, The Salt of the Earth is another Wenders road movie, only it spans an entire life and winds up in locations more far-flung than usual. It doesn’t reveal so much as gracefully confirm that the empathy and humanism enriching Salgado’s photojournalistic pursuits are a vital part of the artist’s outlook on life. Direct-to-camera testimonials are at the film’s troubled heart, and raise the inescapable question of what happens to a soul that’s simply seen too much to return.
As such, The Salt of the Earth a mesmeric and unforgettable look at the world and its afflictions through the eyes of an insightful and honourable artist. And it ends with a change of heart and a turn of events that make a plausible case for hope. Instituto Serra provides an eloquent closure to The Salt of the Earth, as landscapes of human misery give way to landscapes of lush vegetation.
Wenders is at times too much in awe of his subject, failing to seriously address the expressed criticism that Salgado is a voyeur of global pain. The film skimps somewhat on the moral complications, and it’s only sporadically attuned to the reflexive and ethical dimensions of ethnographic discovery. It should have been more probing: droughts, workers’ migration, the refugee crisis, and environmental sustainability cry out for sustained creative attention, especially by a group of this calibre.
But whether The Salt of the Earth is “grief porn” or an epic study in the best and worst we can find on Earth is a question to be left for each viewer. While it may pose thorny ethical questions and neglect to answer them, it remains a soul-shattering, thought-provoking testament to Salgado’s career. If there’s one thing to say about the man, it’s this: he’s willing to get his hands dirty to bring about real change.