“The only real tragedy in life is when men are afraid of the light.”
“Written and directed by Werner Herzog” is a disclaimer to audiences that they should buckle up. The results are often strange, but undoubtedly unique. Where else would you witness a henchman suddenly spring from his wheelchair and proclaim, “I only use the wheelchair when I am tired of life.” In the midst of this kidnapping, hostages and criminals alike walk around, reciting poetic renderings from the minds of Ecclesiastes, Nostrodamus, and Alexander the Great. Imagine if the iguana scene from Bad Lieutenant were extended into a 98-minute film. This is that film, Salt and Fire.
Doctors Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres) and Fabio Cavani (Gael Garcia Bernal) are heading up a United Nations delegation visiting the salt flats of Bolivia to draw attention to the environmental tragedy of Diablo Blanco. A summit they never attend as a militia grabs them at the airport. A masked man (Michael Shannon) explains to Laura that he is none other than Matt Riley, CEO of the consortium that caused the disaster. He, like many Michael Shannon characters, is unhinged, and his motivations are unclear. While much of the dialogue may sound natural in Herzog’s head, it will sound strange to most everyone else. Yet, even though their performances require deliberately stilted vocal deliveries, both Ferres and Shannon are quite compelling.
In a diversion where Riley introduces Laura to the many Trompe-l’oeil paintings on his estate. These images vary from the angle in which they are viewed. This scene doubles as Riley’s own plea to Laura that she look past the analysis and data of her own studies to see what’s in front of her. Herzog asks for patience before unveiling the answer to his grand mystery of Laura’s kidnapping, but by story’s end, his glacial pacing only leaves those watching aggravated.
The first act of Salt and Fire is the most difficult to get through. If viewers can resist the temptation to leave within 30 minutes, which is admittedly rough. After introducing Laura and Riley as the two leads, Herzog goes back in time to show how the delegation got there. It takes 23 minutes to get back to the opening sequence, but the only thing gained is experiencing the tedium of globe-trotting first-hand, and watching Bernal’s Cavani make a drunken ass out of himself. Only after an artful discussion of diarrhea does Herzog get to the point. Riley’s intent is for Laura to witness the Uturuncu supervolcano for herself.
The third act veers much further off from the philosophical silliness of debate between a captor and his captive. As Riley pontificates on the grandness of Uturuncu, and also highlights its dangers, he abandons Laura on the salt flats with two blind boys, whose birth defects are a result of his company’s carelessness. Left with a week’s supplies, the children and Laura must survive the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni.
A frenzied tone would be expected for scenes depicting three people desperately trying to stay alive in a hellish landscape, but, again, Herzog takes a methodical approach to the week. The salt flats of Bolivia make for stunning imagery, and clearly, Herzog is enamored by its stark beauty. Peter Zeitlinger’s camera lovingly gazes upon two boys playing blocks, unaware of their own fate. Both appearing insignificant in the seemingly limitless terrain. However, none of this couldn’t have been better handled in a documentary.
The narrative of Salt and Fire, beyond the oddly enchanting musings of Michael Shannon, adds little in the way of compelling material. Herzog’s apparent disdain for the statistics and analysis Laura wants to provide is off-putting at best, and contradictory to the cause he wants to support. Werner Herzog has made a career out of poking viewers in the eye and making them question what is in front of them. This time he is questioning our doom.