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'The Salt of the Earth' review: A beautiful trip through human misery

A scene from

A scene from "The Salt of the Earth." Credit: Amazonas Images, Sony Pictures Classics / Sebastião Salgado

Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary, "The Salt of the Earth" is a journey through the work of the Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado that possesses almost as much visual splendor as Salgado brought to his 40-plus years' worth of pictures. Although viewers should allow themselves to swim in the imagery, it's not an easy trip revisiting the sites of Salgado's artistic triumphs, because they are also the sites of some of humanity's greatest failures: Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, the Balkans.

As we learn from the celebrated German filmmaker Wim Wenders ("Wings of Desire," "The Buena Vista Social Club") and his co-director, the subject's son Juliano Rubeiro Salgado, the elder Salgado was a successful commercial economist. He and his wife, Lelia, were living well and far away from the military dictatorship oppressing their native Brazil, when he decided to chuck it all and take pictures. They moved to Paris, spent all they had on photographic equipment and Salgado began shooting highly aestheticized images in the more misery-rich corners of the world. In his books and other published work, he tackled only the biggest subjects: drought, war, famine, exodus. What he accomplished was alchemy, a transformation of desperation and misery into something beautiful.

In creating his body of work, Salgado also brought global attention to places that desperately needed it. But he never addresses that; not while Wenders has him in the frame. He talks about man's enormous capacity for cruelty and the miserable state of the world for which people are responsible. He never takes credit for alleviating any suffering. He never addresses the social impact of his work. And one senses in Salgado's silence the moral conflict at the heart of the movie -- the making of art out of other people's tragedy. Salgado is a pure artist, and whatever he touches he makes his own. Except, of course, the actual pain and suffering he traps in his camera.

That said, the two directors deliver a consistently interesting story, which is partly conventional biography, but mostly a trip through the elder Salgado's work as led by the man himself.

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