‘The Salt of the Earth’ Review: Poetry and Philosophy through Photography

'The Salt of the Earth'

Movie Rating:


The Oscar nominated documentary ‘The Salt of the Earth’ chronicles the extraordinary life, career and work of photographer Sabastião Salgado. In most documentarians’ hands, that might suggest a simple run through the photographer’s greatest hits with static talking heads. Thankfully, poetic German filmmaker Wim Wenders (‘Wings of Desire’) took up the cause and delivered something as singularly beautiful and haunting as the career that inspired the film.

‘The Salt of the Earth’ certainly isn’t a movie for everyone. It’s far too leisurely structured and thoughtful for mainstream appeal. However, it’s a brilliant bit of work that should thrill adventurous art house hounds who have adored the director until now.

Way back in 1973, Sabastião Salgado gave up a career as an economist at the World Bank to pursue photography. At first, he was uncertain what he would do in his new venture, snapping wedding photos and struggling to get by. Then his first extraordinary trips to foreign lands shaped his destiny. Over the last 40 years, Salgado has documented the most forgotten or ignored corners of the globe. At times, this may expose the beauty of a rarely explored forest. At other times, it meant capturing tragic wartime atrocities or burning oil fields. Salgado’s subjects mutated over time, always reflecting his new interests as a man. The goal of his career has been to expose whatever interested him the most at any moment of time. Given his extraordinary eye as a photographer, his interests were always reflected through remarkable images that are impossible to forget.

Collaborating with the photographer’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado as co-director, Wenders’ approach is to tell a man’s life story through his photographs. He presents them to his subject for reflection and then presents them to the audience for appreciation. It’s a simple formula, but one that paints a remarkable story through captured stills. (Some of Salgado’s candid private work is mixed in with his professional output to fill in the gaps.) The result is deeply moving and also gorgeous. Salgado’s photographs are truly amazing, especially when expanded to the size of a cinema screen through Wenders’ carefully constructed documentary.

Beyond the fond (and no so fond) remembrances and photographs, the filmmakers also follow Salgado at work in the present day, showing him interacting with locals in rural Brazil or taking portraits of the far reaches of the Arctic. The trips were strategically chosen to force Salgado to retrace many steps that he’s taken over his globe-trotting career. Wenders is of course no slouch when it come to capturing images himself, so he frames Salgado through equally remarkable visuals. The result is a documentary that is truly a feast for the eyes and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. Thanks to Salgado’s deeply personal interests and insightful reflections, the movie also offers a feast for the soul as well. (Please excuse the horribly cheesy hyperbole. It’s nearly impossible to properly describe the movie without such things.)

‘The Salt of the Earth’ tackles the depths of human atrocity and the vastness of natural beauty with some awkwardly personal family reflections in between. Like Salgado’s career, the film can often feel as though it’s about everything at once, held together only by the personal experiences of a single remarkable man. The doc covers the best and worst of the world, telling stories both big and small. It doesn’t exactly do so in a flurry of entertainment, however. Wenders isn’t an MTV filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination, and Salgado himself is a very reserved man who speaks at a measured pace. The images might be arresting, but the movie is slow and delicate. It sneaks up on viewers, seeming to gently trod along without purpose until a flurry of ideas and emotions arrive all at once in culmination.

That’s not exactly an experience that will please as many viewers as those who went out to have their eyeholes assaulted by ‘Furious 7’ last weekend. Even those who enjoy the film will feel their patience being tested. However, ‘The Salt of the Earth’ remains a special cinematic achievement for those willing to accept it on its own terms. It’s well worth seeking out for anyone as thoughtful and adventurous as the man at the center of the movie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *