The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences used to give two cinematography Oscars, one for black-and-white and one for color. If it still did, “The Salt of the Earth” would be worthy of both.
Co-directors Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado have made a beautiful film about a beautiful man who took both beautiful and intentionally unbeautiful pictures: Sebastião Salgado, the Brazilian-born master who spent four decades roaming the world with a camera.
This Oscar-nominated documentary does everything you want a documentary to do. It introduces us to a compelling character and, by the finish, allows us to feel we know him well. It makes larger points about the human toil and suffering he shot for most of his career, before he turned to nature to refresh himself.
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And it’s visually stimulating, jumping back-and-forth between narrated sections that feature past work (mostly in black-and-white) and current excursions in rich, deep hues. Hugo Barbier, who was a cameraman on Wenders’ Oscar nominee “Pina,” and Juliano Salgado shot the footage.
Their subject grew up on a Brazilian cattle farm before going to college and eventually landing in Europe with his wife. After a false start as an economist, Sebastião Salgado dedicated himself to photographing the disenfranchised: laborers in the world’s deepest gold mine, remote tribes whose lands were in danger of being taken away, refugees from countless wars.
The co-directors touch sparingly on his non-professional life, discussing long absences from the family. (Juliano Salgado doesn’t seem to have minded; he viewed Dad as a great adventurer.) We hear briefly from his wife, who talks about his work but not herself. Yet with one exception, it would be hard to imagine what to cut from Sebastião Salgado’s pithy reminiscences or the parade of glorious images.
The film does bog down in a sequence about atrocities in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Serbia, Bosnia, Ethiopia. Salgado was obsessed by the inhumanity he saw, and this section becomes numbing. (The photos are still first-rate, but they overwhelm.)
Then he came up with a project called “Genesis” and devoted 10 years of his life to photographing Earth’s beauties. This led to another project – to say more is to spoil a surprise – that makes the picture uplifting and sends you off with some hope for our species. Or, at least, a few creative and caring members of it.
‘The Salt of the Earth’
Oscar-nominated documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado scores on all fronts, visually and conceptually.
A- STAR: Sebastião Salgado.
DIRECTORS: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes.
RATING: PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity).