Film review: The Salt of the Earth

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Look at the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado and you’ll see all of humanity’s folly and suffering. He depicts a vast open goldmine teeming with desperate men – a distant relative of Hieronymous Bosch’s masterwork The Last Judgement; refugees from the Sahel who are nothing but skin and bones in rags; Rwandan corpses left in the roads to rot and draped over bric a brac like Dali soft watches. Salgado’s is a truly tragic vision, and he says it out loud: “We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story.”

In this documentary biopic, co-directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son Juliano, we see that Salgado is clearly the most compassionate of men. Despite bearing the coolness necessary to portray the world through a lens, he feels the pain of his subjects and gets to know and love them. That is, until Rwanda. The genocide there breaks him, and he retreats to his family farm in Brazil after years of nomadic wandering documenting the human catastrophe in all its gore and glory while nominally living in Paris.

Korem Camp, Ethiopia, 1984
Korem Camp, Ethiopia, 1984

In Brazil he and his family embark on an astonishing project of re-forestation on their withered land, and eventually they open Instituto Terra, a non-profit environmental organization.

The film uses face-to-camera commentary from Salgado himself, as well as Wenders’s narration. Salgado (which means “salty” in Portuguese – hence the pun in the film’s title) is a charismatic presence throughout. His face emerges from the dark like some ancient prophet – bald, laconic – and he describes his life story: his upbringing on the family farm and his training as an economist before finding his vocation as a photographer of the oppressed and the dispossessed.

There are gaps in the narrative. We don’t learn what happened to Salgado’s second son, born with Down’s syndrome. And his wife, Lelia, who not only puts up with Salgado’s long absences but actually helps plan his projects, is a peripheral figure who should be more central.

But overall, this is a film of astonishing grace – by turns intimate, heartfelt, and horrifying. Which is a perfect tribute to a peerless observer and capturer of the human condition.

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