Febiofest Review: ‘Salt and Fire’ Lesser Herzog

Febiofest Review: ‘Salt and Fire’ Lesser Herzog

Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats at more than ten thousand square kilometers, is one of the most unique places across the globe, featuring a sea of immaculately-patterned salt crystals dotted with some protruding cactus-filled rock islands, each multiple days’ walk away from the nearest civilization.

The salt flats have become a major tourist destination over the past few decades, with hotels popping up along the shores and vans full of tourists driving through the sea of salt and the surrounding sights.

If you never get a chance to visit the Salar de Uyuni, Werner Herzog’s new film, Salt and Fire, offers a tremendous overview of the area, with cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger beautifully capturing the unique landscape.

The entire second half of the film is a tour of the surrounding area, stopping not just in the vast salt flats but also the nearby Uturunku, a potential supervolcano that last erupted nearly 300,000 years ago, and the nearby train cemetery full of abandoned 19th century rail vehicles. Both of which are must-see stops for any tourist groups in the area.

But it’s the salt flats that make the biggest impression. An enormous, flat stretch of Earth so blindingly white that satellites use it for calibration, the Salar de Uyuni is beautiful and terrifying and hypnotic for as long as the director leaves it on the screen.

There’s a fictional story in here too; unfortunately, it’s one that doesn’t do the location any justice, nor does it create much interest on its own terms.

It involves a scientific delegation sent to the location to investigate an ecological threat; the Salar de Uyuni is cast as the Diablo Blanco, a man-made disaster that has resulted in a vast lake drying up and poisoning the surrounding landscape.

But before the delegation - played by Veronica Ferres, Gael García Bernal, Volker Michalowski - can reach the salt flats, they’re kidnapped by a group of masked men with automatic rifles led by Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), the man in charge of the “consortium” responsible for the disaster.

Riley and Ferres’ Laura have dense and lengthy discussions before he eventually drivers her out to the flats and abandons her. His plan is at first vague and confusing and ultimately trite, but Shannon fully commits to the role and Herzog injects some offbeat humor to provide some levity.

Still, Salt and Fire is mostly a bore, and one that the gorgeous setting cannot overcome. I did, however, like the theme of appearances changing based on perception, exemplified by an anamorphic painting in Rome’s Santa Maria dei Monti.

Along with his more well-known features and documentaries, Herzog has made films of minor story but hypnotizing beauty (Heart of Glass, for one) that simply entrance the viewer. This is not one of them.

As a lifelong fan of the director’s work, Salt and Fire is admittedly one of his lesser efforts, but one not without it’s own unique assets.

Side note: Ferres is a strikingly beautiful actress, but in close-ups here looks waxy and lifeless, the result of a makeup issue or post-production scrubbing (in every shot, she appears to be distractingly out of focus). Shannon, in comparison, is so vivid you can see every crevice and facial hair on his mug.

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