Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Salt and Fire (4 Stars)

This is a film that's divided the critics. Maybe it will divide cinema audiences as well, it's too early to say. As usual, I refrained from reading reviews until I returned home from watching it in the cinema this afternoon. The first review I read was from someone who hated it. The second review was from someone who loved it.

The film is about a scientific team sent by the United Nations to Bolivia to examine the volcano Uturuncu, because of fears that an imminent eruption could cause a widespread humanitarian catastrophe. The team leader is Professor Laura Sommerfeld, played by the German actress Veronica Ferres. Shortly after arriving the three scientists are kidnapped and separated. From then on the story is only about Laura. Whenever she asks about them she's merely told that they're unharmed.

The leader of the kidnappers (played by Michael Shannon) isn't the political rebel that Laura expects. He's a mild-mannered intellectual who sits talking with her about art and philosophy. He quotes Nostradamus as readily as Francis Bacon and the Bible. He reveals that he's Matt Riley, the former head of a large international consortium that was working in Bolivia. The type of work is deliberately withheld from the film's audience, leaving us to make up our own minds. Maybe they were cutting down forests, maybe they were drilling for minerals, maybe they were building dams. It doesn't matter. What matters is that Matt considers himself responsible for an even bigger ecological disaster than the volcano.

Laura tries to find out what Matt's intentions are, but he says nothing, talking for days about spiritual issues. Then he drives her into the middle of the salt desert surrounding the volcano and abandons her. He gives her enough food and water for eight days, and he leaves two blind boys with her as companions.

The main criticisms of those who don't like the film are that the plot is preposterous and Veronica Ferres' acting is wooden. To answer the latter criticism first, I've been to university. I've known professors who were very wooden and stilted in their mannerisms. That's what many professors are like. Veronica's acting is appropriate for the role.

As for the preposterous plot, I can see that it might look extreme. An ex-company chief abandoning a UN scientist in the desert? Do things like that happen? I'm not aware that it ever has happened, but it's something that could happen. Drama of any type, written or filmed, is based on the reaction of normal people to abnormal events.

I enjoyed the film. I was fascinated by everything that happened, especially the stunning scenes in the salt desert. The musical score was also amazing. The film lasted 98 minutes, supposedly, but when it came to an end it seemed like much less. I could have sat for another hour. A good film is never too long.

One thing that slightly amused me was that Laura Sommerfeld towered over her two male companions when she arrived in Bolivia. I had to check their heights. Veronica Ferres is 5'10", but she was wearing shoes with heels that added at least four inches to her height. Gael Garcia Bernal (on the right) is 5'6", but the smallest of the three is Volker Michalowski (on the left) at 5'1".

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