(Herbert J. Biberman, USA, 1954)
A kind of miraculous achievement. Salt of the Earth is so unusual, so sui generis, that it prompts me to examine my fundamental ideas about cinema, and art in general. It's not a film that excels on the merits of style, which makes it difficult to fit within the framework of autuerism. Biberman is a capable director - he has a feel for pacing, mood, and manages to conjure some bracing images. And he isn't without style: the film has clear antecedents in Italian neorealism, Biberman having learned much from Rosselini in his skill with nonprofessional actors, his brisk, straightforward framing, and his focus on the rough textures and flashes of beauty that one can find in squalor. He also exhibits a knack for staging melodrama, a theatrical skill that isn't often spoken of in relation to neorealism, but which is as essential to it as handheld camerawork and deeply lined faces.
But all of that is transcended in the story, which takes on a kind of documentary immediacy, and even more strangely, develops a glow of prophecy. Not that it portends some future revelation, but that it is itself a kind of revelation, a vision of something that is true, and thus timeless. Because this isn't a story that can be told, or that has been told. It's a kind of revelation of a personal nature, so intrinsic to human history and yet so commonly suppressed, that it contains the urgency of a suddenly remembered trauma. My guess is that one needs to be attuned to this history to recognize how exceptional it is. The notices upon its release ranged from hysterical to dismissive. Plenty of people who considered themselves apolitical were scandalized by the film, which despite their apolitical nature still managed to stir a strong aversion in them. I won't impinge on Zizek's turf, but this is ideology in action.
Several scenes are clunky, and the nonprofessional actors are, with a few notable exceptions, easy to spot. But it's in this neorealist gambit - casting everyday people, some of whom were actual participants in the strike that served as the basis for the story - that Biberman reveals his genius. A more polished production, with more money and the artifice to spend it on, would easily tumble into treacly sermonizing. It's the documentary quality that brings the story to life, that fuses with the subject matter of everyday people taking control of their lives, living out there convictions, and struggling against their limitations, internal and external. It's Biberman's focus on the actual living conditions, the real hovels in which the minors were housed, the clothes they wore, the way they stood in the cold, that elevates this story to the level of great art.
As a culture, we are made uniquely uncomfortable by political art, and have been for over a century. But that's not entirely true, since all art is political on at least one level. Better to say that we are uncomfortable with art that is honest about its political content, that treats the moral underpinnings of its political attitudes as worthy of acknowledgement. We have become used to the idea of our art as anguished, obscure, even nihilistic (as if that weren't a question of morality), art that is cagey about its conception of human value. Audiences still don't know what to do with a movie like Salt of the Earth. In the fifties, it was easier just to ban it, and the critics were happy to comply. It might have given the Feds hives, but its greater and more dangerous effect was to make bourgeois critics and audiences squirm. Taking the film seriously means suspending, even temporarily, the lies we live by: that wage labor is an acceptable price for comfort and the illusion of freedom, that women still (still!) aren't quite on the level of men, that the Latino migrant workers might have it worse off, but what can you do? Better them than us.
Salt of the Earth is a film that dares to speak plainly about unspeakable things. In 2015, it feels absolutely contemporary.