The excellent result of German veteran Wim Wenders' film about Pina Bausch, 2011's visionary 3D experience Pina, certainly helps expect the best from his take on the life and work of acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Yet, no such luck: while this is still a cut above Mr. Wenders' latest below-par fictions, this film co-directed with Mr. Salgado's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, seems to be a compromise work, a sort of "relay race" where the directors pass the "baton" back and forth but never really make the most of what they have at hand.
There's a sense that Mr. Wenders wanted to delve deeper into the personal connection between photographer and subject, as seen in the interview sequences where Mr. Salgado is shot head-on through a "scrim" where his pictures are being projected; and that Mr. Ribeiro Salgado was more interested in a straight biographical narrative. The connecting tissue between both is the photographer's powerful black & white work, presented in chronological order, and punctuated by his own comments, as a sort of "witness" or "register" of the "social condition".
What's interesting about The Salt of the Earth is that it aims at being journey into an unheralded "heart of darkness", as if Mr. Salgado was a still-photography, more contemplative equivalent of Werner Herzog, looking at the underside of contemporary civilization - and that is in fact how Mr. Wenders seem to look at him at times, like a messenger from the other side of life. But that approach never truly gels with the smoother, more traditional biographical aspect that goes from A to B to C; if the film is always beautiful to look at (and yes, it is), it is also somewhat unsatisfactory as an exploration of Mr. Salgado's mind and work, preferring to dwell on the
The result is a never-less-than-interesting documentary, for sure, done with all the technical polish expected (high marks for Laurent Petitgand's evocative, ambient score), but where you feel an unresolved push-and-pull between its directors (and, in interviews, both directors have stated the film took a long while to "find"). It's less than the sum of its parts.
THE SALT OF THE EARTH
France, Brazil, Italy, 2014
Directors Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado; screenwriters Mr. Ribeiro Salgado, Mr. Wenders and David Rosier; cinematographers Hugo Barbier and Mr. Ribeiro Salgado (colour and black & white); composer Laurent Petitgand; editors Maxine Goedicke and Rob Myers; producer Mr. Rosier; production companies Decia Films in co-production with Amazonas Images and Fondazione Solares delle Arti
Screened April 4th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)