BIFF Movie Review: Salt
Chris Tharp reviews the movie “Sal” (Salt). While at times a red flag is raised, the overall concept of the Western within a Western works for the sheer fun of it.
BUSAN, South Korea -- When choosing a film to attend at BIFF, you are presented with a dizzying amount of variables: Have you actually heard of the movie, its actors or director? Does that particular country have a good reputation for cinema? Does the genre suit you? Are you apt to give 6,000 won and 80 (or so) minutes of your life to a piece of art based on five or six sentences strewn-together in the BIFF guide?
Over seven years of attending the fest, I have a few personal rules of thumb. First, I generally avoid most big-name, big-budget films. These are always the first to sell out and are also films that will likely see large-scale theatrical runs of their own. I also tend to eschew Korean films, since I live in Korea and can see them most anytime—though BIFF is one of the few times to see them on the big screen with English subtitles, so maybe next year I’ll change this rule.
So, what films do I actively seek out? Well, I have developed a taste for weird films from South America, the Middle East and Central Asia. These are three parts of the world that somehow fascinate me. Two years ago the fest featured a whole load of films from Kurdistan—hard scrabble mountain villages, buses grinding up valley roads, mournful Middle Eastern music, and shots of wind-blown, boulder-dotted fields of snow. I was in heaven. Allah is indeed Akbar.
If you had to boil it down, you could say I have a hard-on for setting. I love films that are shot in actual cool places: Location! Location! Location! (Burn down the sound stages! I want the real deal!) I want to be transported to a remote and inaccessible country that I have dreamed of visiting but have yet to step foot in, due to lack of funds or lack of balls or both. For me, BIFF has become a kind of travel escapism: Exotic indie director: Take me away!!! So you can imagine my elation when I saw the description for Salt (Sal in Spanish), an Argentinian feature shot entirely in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, which has the distinction of being both the driest place on Earth and somewhere I've been aching to visit. There are said to be some parts of the Atacama where it has never, ever rained. Yes!
Oh ye gods of BIFF, transport me at once.
Salt concerns itself with Sergio, a Spanish independent director who can’t get any funding for his screenplay, a Western film set in northern Chile also titled Salt. He meets with several prospective producers, all of whom tell him that his script rings phony on all fronts, that he has nothing real to say, that, essentially, he’s just written a massive paella de shit. It is then suggested that he get more “life experience”, so the young Sergio does just that, and boards a plane to Chile in order to find his muse.
From the opening scene until the end, Salt runs on this simple conceit: Sergio has written a Western and now he’s living a Western. The narrative switches back and forth between Sergio’s imagined story and the one he’s actually experiencing: A film within a film. A Western within a Western. Oh man. So trippy, dude. Get it?
The straight-out-film-school cliché red flag went up like a matador’s cloth at a bull fight.
Sergio arrives in a tiny town somewhere in the belly of Chile’s Atacama Desert which is run by a nasty, local crime boss. He is immediately mistaken for someone named Diego, and here’s where things go kooky: Evidently this Diego—some years before—did something terrible enough to stoke the ire of the big bad man. The boss, believing Sergio to be this Diego-non-grata, has his flunkies kidnap, knock the snot out of him, and deposit him on the ranch of a grizzled old man also under the control of el jefe grande control, where he’ll rot until bad boss man can figure out exactly how to exact his revenge.
Okay, so we have evil bearded cowboys, unresolved beefs, horses, revenge plots, windswept plains, and a musical score sucking straight from Sergio Leone’s ample teat. Salt is a Western about Westerns, with not just a nod—but a full-body prostration—to the genre.
And this is where the film works. Despite numerous raisings of the eyebrow, Salt ends up succeeding through pure fun. The acting is uneven and the ending is clunky and you can call every beat in the story a minute before it unfolds on screen, but director Diego Rougier makes us all smile through his pure love of the genre. I grew up on Westerns and can appreciate the homage. Rougier obviously adores them as well, and this spirit shines through the film’s numerous cracks like the Chilean desert sun.
And even if the story wobbles on newborn foal legs, the setting is fantastic and worthy the 90 minutes alone. I was transported to a dusty, heat-scarred landscape. About halfway through I was so thirsty that I contemplated drinking my own pee, but since I was in a crowded theater, I chose to endure, surrendering to the better angel of my nature.
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