Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sebastião Salgado, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders
Written by: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders, David Rosier, Camille Delafon
Directed by: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity
Language: French, Portuguese, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 110
Date: 03/27/2015

The Salt of the Earth (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Salgado Working

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The documentary The Salt of the Earth tells the story of Sebastião Salgado, who left a promising career as an economist to pursue his passion for photography. He traveled the world, capturing striking images of people everywhere, especially down-and-out people. He began to assemble books based on themes, such as "Workers" and people who were forced to leave their homes due to drastic circumstances ("Exodus"). Eventually he grew weary of seeing human cruelty and human suffering everywhere and sunk into a deep depression. Finally, with help from his wife, he came out of it with his "Genesis" collection, about rebirth.

Director Wim Wenders is credited as a co-director with Salgado's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, which leaves us in doubt as to just how objective everything is. Wenders even seems to be more buddies with the two men than he is an interviewer or a journalist. Not to mention that there's a strange father-son dynamic going on in which the younger Juliano clearly feels as if he grew up without a father. Yet the film shows a kind of hero worship, with the younger man doing all the work to try to bond with the father. If the situation is more complicated than that, the film doesn't show it.

What it does show is a series of astonishing photographs, many of them taken on actual film. It's easy to see why they are considered works of art, works of genius, and there were a few that I wouldn't mind hanging on my wall. Yet many other images are grueling and depressing and can suck your will to live, and the movie goes on for a long time, 110 minutes. It was designed with a "happy ending," so you can leave feeling good, but it's still a tough road to travel, wallowing in the worst of human behavior for most of that time.

The Salt of the Earth was nominated for an Oscar, oddly, up against another movie about a photographer, Finding Vivian Maier. Even though it was not possible to get footage of Maier for the film, it paints what feels like a fairly in-depth portrait of her and her work; her photographs are also brutally realistic, but they have more beauty and less suffering. (It was my fifth favorite documentary in a year full of good ones.) The Salt of the Earth is certainly worth seeing, but I think an Oscar nomination is overstating things a bit.

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