25 years ago, director Wim Wenders’ discovered the haunting black and white artworks of celebrated Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Now a 70-year-old man who has traveled to nearly every corner of the Earth for more than 40 years, Salgado has documented some of the most tragic and catastrophic events in recent history: revolutions and international conflicts, genocide in Rwanda, wars in Yugoslavia, starvation in Ethiopia, the Saddam Hussein-devastated Kuwaiti oilfields, mass exoduses around the globe and more. So taken with Salgado’s iconic photos —striking works often bearing witness to the poor, the suffering and neglected members of society— Wenders bought two prints and promptly framed them above his office desk where they remain to this day.
But the more Salgado’s ghostly photos preoccupied Wenders’ heart and psyche (this photo in particular), the more the venerable German filmmaker felt compelled to understand the man who took them. Eventually Wenders would come to not only befriend Salgado, but with “The Salt Of The Earth” he offers a deeply moving and insightful portrait of the artist, his camera work and his exceptionally sensitive observations of humanity.
Co-directed by the photographer’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the film is a half-made doc that Wenders has to provide shape and form to. And while this portrait suffers from little bumps —Wenders is compelled to explain the how the documentary came together at the behest of the Salgado family— the film finally becomes unmistakably Wenders’ own, in a spiritually reverent manner.
Leaving Brazil for Paris in the 1960s due to political unrest, Salgado abandoned a comfortable middle-class career in economics for the world of photography, a discipline he knew nothing about. But as Salgado’s first photo clearly demonstrated —an uncannily striking and moody picture of his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado— the artist was preternaturally gifted with capturing not only a moment and a person but an essence that lingered far beyond one fleeting glimpse.
Salgado’s photography expeditions were more pilgrimages than trips. His restless globetrotting found him abandoning his family for months at a time; with campesinos in rural South America, folk artists in Mexico, impoverished cultures all over Africa and remote indigenous people around the world. Wenders’ coup de maître is a two-way mirror contraption where Salgado sits, recounting the often heartbreaking tales behind the image. And what Wender’s slow-burning and beautiful doc communicates most ardently is the compassion Salgado extends to his subjects, which is seemingly part of the very texture of each photo. Scored by musician composer Laurent Petitgand (who hadn’t worked with Wenders since the ‘90s), the gorgeous score is a standout. Swelling with a low-hum beauty, his music is like an ambient celestial chorus, but one that wisely never tries to drown out the subject.
Shot by Salgado junior and Hugo Barbier (who also lensed Wenders’ 3D doc “Pina”), “The Salt Of The Earth” is as often breathtakingly beautiful as the photographer’s images. Some of the black and white photography is awe-inspiring, much like Salgado’s snapshots. Wenders’ soulful banquet of sound, music, imagery and vision is a feast for the senses and often tremendously moving, like a hushed cathedral of worship for Salgado’s vivid revelations.
As stunning as “The Salt Of The Earth” often is, the movie is not without its structural issues. Originally a project undertaken by Salgado’s son to understand his father, Wenders is obligated to include some of this footage, which was shot abroad on wildlife expeditions. But these sequences are unremarkable compared to what’s clearly Wenders’ insight. “The Salt Of The Earth” is always at its best when it’s focused through his own lens; a deeply curious and solemnly poetic absorption of his subject that takes on a hypnotic quality not unlike the documentary works of fellow perennially fascinated German Werner Herzog. Occasionally Wenders’ narration and POV is much too pretentious, but at least it comes from a point of genuine admiration for Salgado’s work.
There are a few loose ends. The co-director’s POV vanishes in the second half of the picture, and the decision to include a brief subplot about another, mentally challenged son is unfortunate, as that tangent dangles and quickly disappears without much bearing on the central narrative. Some of Wenders’ narration is redundant, but when employed sparingly becomes more of a spirited guide than storytelling crutch.
Told chronologically more or less, from Salgado’s early days in Brazil to his environmental awakenings later on in life (beginning with an epic project called “Genesis”), where Wenders excels is when he expands the poeticism and gravitas of his subject’s evocative perspective on the planet and its people. And the idea of tourism and privilege isn’t overlooked. Salgado has the benefit of venturing into war-torn environments and then returning safely home to his family. But it’s a testament to his conviction —so immersed in the work and missing for such long stretches, he’s described as largely an absentee father— that a deep psychic price is enacted when the photographer is sidelined in existential despair for several months after returning from the Rwandan slaughter. The “heart of darkness” that clouds Salgado’s soul eventually passes when, with the help of his ever-present wife (the brains behind his concepts and operations), the pair conceives of a project to replant the trees and vegetation around the now-barren farm where Salgado was raised. While the reforestation program initially seems like another overlong tangent, Wenders sees the bigger picture; a rejuvenation through nature which feeds into Salgado’s unwavering faith in mankind.
And this is what separates Salgado from average tourists; his work evokes a bottomless well of empathy and dignity for its subjects that can move you to tears. The Special Prize winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard section, "The Salt of The Earth" is a mesmeric and unforgettable look at the world and it sufferings through the eyes of a remarkably insightful and honorable artist. [A-]