×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘The Salt of the Earth’

Wim Wenders confirms his mastery of the documentary form with this stunning ode to Sebastiao Salgado.

With:
Sebastiao Salgado, Lelia Wanick Salgado, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Sebastiao Ribeiro Salgado, Hugo Barbier, Regis Muller, Jacques Barthelemy.   Narrators: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.   (French, English, Portuguese dialogue)

Wim Wenders’ mastery of the documentary form is again on display in “The Salt of the Earth,” a stunning visual ode to the photographer Sebastiao Salgado, co-directed by the shutterbug’s docu-helmer son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Long recognized as one of the camera’s great artists, Sebastiao’s sculptural use of light and space is combined with a deep empathy for the human condition, resulting in richly complex black-and-white images that capture the dignity within every subject. “Salt” guides the viewer on a visual odyssey through the photographer’s career, enriched by Wenders’ monochrome footage and Juliano’s color. More traditional than “Pina,” the docu may not quite reach that film’s heights but will still play strongly worldwide.

Wenders hit upon an exceptionally clever, cinematic way of filming Sebastiao discussing his work, by projecting the master’s photographs onto a semi-transparent mirror that allows audiences to see both image and man. In this way, Wenders teases out memories of various monumental projects, turning normally banal talking-head visuals into a more interactive device. Sebastiao didn’t start as a photographer: Born in the Brazilian mining state of Minas Gerais, he studied economics, even working with the World Bank following his exile in France in 1969, after Brazil’s military coup. Looking for more fulfillment, he and his wife, Lelia, invested in quality camera equipment, and in 1973 Sebastiao left for Niger, where he began his portfolio chronicling nobility in the face of suffering.

The docu doesn’t start chronologically: Wenders first has Sebastiao comment on his most recognized images, from the Serra Pelada mine that formed part of the “Workers” series of the 1980s. The photos have a haunting, plaintive monumentality (made even more so when blown up onto the bigscreen), akin to frieze reliefs in the way they combine an architectural precision with tensed muscles and energetic forms. It’s fascinating to hear Sebastiao discuss their genesis and the emotions he felt while shooting in this vast, Inferno-like expanse.

Several series came before, starting with a photographic essay on South America that enabled Sebastiao to get close to his native Brazil without crossing the border, until a return from exile in 1980. He followed that up with “The Sahel, the End of the Road,” his first major exploration of communities suffering from deprivation, and also the first time he worked in conjunction with Doctors Without Borders. After that came “Workers” and then “Exodus,” a project that unavoidably left him psychologically scarred by the horrific misery he witnessed and recorded. Designed as a record of the displacement of populations through famine, war and economic deprivation, the series coincided with the civil war in Rwanda and unimaginable horrors.

Influential critics such as Susan Sontag and Ingrid Sischy accused Sebastiao of turning misery into an aestheticized object for Western consumption, yet reducing these photographs merely to beautiful images corrupts their intent and meaning. Certainly he has a trained eye for striking compositions, but his artistry lies in the way he combines beauty with sensitivity to the inner strength and dignity of even his most wretched subjects. The satisfying beauty of the shot doesn’t work against empathy but rather ennobles those he photographs, resulting in moving, synergistic compositions of deep humanity and drama.

After “Exodus,” Sebastiao no longer believed in mankind’s salvation. Returning to Brazil with a desperate need to assuage his bitterness, he was faced with the desiccated remnants of his family’s formerly verdant farm, parched from drought. With Leila, he began an experimental program of replanting; their technique proved so successful that the project, called “Instituto Terra,” has now reforested parts of Brazil’s Mata Atlantica and is a model for similar efforts worldwide. The experience reinvigorated the photographer for his most recent project “Genesis,” a collaboration with son Juliano that encompasses parts of the globe retaining their primeval aspect, from Wrangel Island in Siberia to the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

As a young man Sebastiao must have seemed a strange sight, his long blond hair and bushy red beard a striking contrast with the appearance of the indigenous people he was photographing. Away for long stretches of the year due to his insistence on living with his subjects, he relied on the remarkably patient Leila to organize their home and professional life, and the docu makes clear she’s a vital force behind all his projects. For Juliano, his largely absent father was an almost legendary figure, so their collaboration on “Genesis” has a satisfying pertinence.

Although “The Salt of the Earth” contains numerous scenes of Sebastiao shooting, there’s little discussion of his working methods and zero mention of artistic influences. Wenders’ narration contains more than a few choice platitudes  “he looked into the heart of darkness” and such  but the visuals and subject are so strong that they’re easily ignored. What audiences cannot fail to notice, once again, is the director’s exceptional eye for black-and-white, combining his own sensitivity to the form with the influence of Sebastiao’s work (they both have an intense appreciation for skies decorated with clouds in an array of gray tonalities). Juliano’s color lensing also has a sweep and appreciation for light and reflection. The photos look fantastic enlarged on a cinema screen.

Cannes Film Review: 'The Salt of the Earth'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 19, 2014. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production: (Documentary  France-Italy) A Le Pacte release of a Decia Films presentation of a Decia Films, Amazonas Images, Solares Delle Arti production, in association with Vagalume Filmes, Moondog Prods. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by David Rosier. Co-producers, Lelia Wanick Salgado, Andrea Gambetta. Executive producer, Wim Wenders.

Crew: Directed by Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Written by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wenders, David Rosier. Camera (b&w, color), Hugo Barbier, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado; editors, Maxine Goedicke, Rob Myers; music, Laurent Petitgand; sound (5.1), Regis Muller; additional footage, Hubert Sauper; associate producer, Julio de Abreu.  

With: Sebastiao Salgado, Lelia Wanick Salgado, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Sebastiao Ribeiro Salgado, Hugo Barbier, Regis Muller, Jacques Barthelemy.   Narrators: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.   (French, English, Portuguese dialogue)

More Film

  • Arca, Cacerola, Viento del Norte, Panda

    Arca, Cacerola, Viento del Norte, Panda Team on ‘Mental Health Not Included’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — In a return to film production after serving as president of Argentina’s National Institute of Film and the Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) and then as a member of parliament, film producer Liliana Mazure is teaming with prestigious counterparts in Mexico and Brazil on a three-part, pan-regional dark comedy, “Mental Health Not Included.” Lead [...]

  • IFFAM and Variety Celebrate Asian Talent

    IFFAM and Variety Celebrate Asian Talent Up Next

    The International Film Festival and Awards Macao and Variety combined forces for the second year running to put a spotlight on Asia’s acting talent. A well-attended meet-the-stars press event on Friday afternoon in Macau was addressed by leading local official, Maria Helena Senna de Fernandes. She turned the microphone over the five actors from different [...]

  • Panorama, Delicious Team for Bernardo de

    Panorama, Delicious Team for Bernardo de la Rosa’s ‘Mario’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — One of Mexico’s highest-flying production houses whose latest movie production, “I’m No Longer Here,” screens as a work on progress at Ventana Sur, Gerardo Gática and Alberto Muffelmann’s Panorama Global, will produce “Mario,” a bio series directed by Bernardo de la Rosa which underscores Latin America’s building drive into bilingual, bi-country U.S.-Mexico [...]

  • Backtrace Review

    Film Review: 'Backtrace'

    “You can’t kill me! I died seven years ago!” It’s very much to the credit of Matthew Modine that he persuasively sells this melodramatic scrap of dialogue, and every other aspect of his trickily written lead character, in “Backtrace,” a better-than-average VOD-centric thriller that likely wouldn’t work nearly so well without the veteran actor’s totally [...]

  • Brett Leonard Boards 'Elijah'

    Film News Roundup: 'Lawnmower Man' Director Brett Leonard Boards 'Elijah'

    In today’s film news roundup, “Elijah” gets a director, a French fry documentary starts shooting and “Uglydolls” moves its release date forward. PROJECT LAUNCH More Reviews Film Review: 'Backtrace' Broadway Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Brett Leonard, best known for directing ”The Lawnmower Man” and “Virtuosity,” will direct the supernatural feature film “Elijah,” based on [...]

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    SAG-AFTRA Commercial Negotiations Set for February

    With no fanfare, SAG-AFTRA and the ad industry have set a mid-February start for negotiations for a successor deal to the union’s master contract, Variety has learned. The current three-year deal — which covers about $1 billion in annual earnings — expires on March 31. SAG-AFTRA and the Joint Policy Committee of the ad industry [...]

  • SONDRA LOCKESONDRA LOCKE - 1986

    Oscar Nominee Sondra Locke Dies at 74

    Actress and director Sondra Locke, who received a supporting actress Oscar nomination in her first movie role for “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” died Nov. 3 at 74. The Los Angeles County Public Health Department confirmed her death. She died due to breast and bone cancer, according to Radar Online, which reported that she [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content