Undeniably brilliant filmmaking, from the newsreel camera of Mikhail Konstantinovich Kalatozoshvili (condensed to Mikhail Kalatozov). But is it a documentary?
Upper Svanetia lies between the Caspian and Black Seas, at the convergence of two mountain ranges and is effectively cut off from the rest of civilization by treacherous terrain and glaciers. An agrarian subsistence community, they survive on barley--the only thing to grow at this altitude. From
wool and stone they fashion clothing, homes, all the necessities. All except salt. The isolated village of Ushkul is starving for salt, sending expeditions of men through the dangerous snowy mountain passes to bring back a handful at a time. That is, until the great Soviet state begins work on a
road system connecting Svanetia with the rest of the motherland. Hard at work blasting their way through to victory, the Soviet workforce has built 50 miles of road out of a projected 107 by the end of the film.
But the road is really an afterthought, only bearing mention in the last five minutes of the story. Director Kalatozov is clearly far more interested in the Svans themselves than the supreme Soviet savior machine. In 1927 SVANETIA by Zhelyabuzhsky and Yalavoi was the first film to peek at this
unique cultural enclave; based on an article by Sergei Tretiakov, SALT FOR SVANETIA takes a more dramatic look, dividing its attention into episodes, beginning with the most striking physical aspect of the community--the stone towers dotting the landscape. Flashing back to earlier days, Kalatozov
depicts villagers fleeing to the towers and tossing stones on tax collectors sent by the rich barons from the valley below. Other impressive sequences depict farmers struggling to salvage their crops from a freak snowstorm in late July; caught in an avalanche as they trudge through the snow with
their booty of salt; dragging reluctant beasts of burden over raging waters on a swinging bridge made of woolen rope. But most memorable (and most contentious) are the climactic scenes, contrasting the funeral of a rich man with a woman exiled for having the temerity to go into labor during the
funeral. Pregnancy here, the titles tell us, is a curse, and the woman gives birth alone on a mountaintop while the rest of the community engages in a ritual ceremony including leaping en masse into the dead man's grave, bathing the grave in freshly slaughtered ox blood, and running a horse until
it collapses and dies of exhaustion. The woman is then shown kneeling alone over the grave of her baby, squeezing the milk from her breast onto the earth. "Enough," the state shouts, and begins work on the road.
It's all hugely dramatic, but critics (including 25 leading Svans) slammed the film for its fabrications. The state condemned it as too focused on the backwardness of its subjects rather than the glories of Soviet engineering (despite the film squarely putting the blame for that backwardness on
the evil of religion), and was displeased by its overall "negativism." A former economist turned actor turned editor, cameraman, then finally director, Kalatozov (1903-1973) followed the film with A NAIL IN THE BOOT in 1932--promptly banned for much the same reasons and never officially released.
"Rewarded" with an administative position, Kalatozov didn't direct again until years later, eventually winning international recognition with THE CRANES ARE FLYING (1957).
There's little question of Kalatozov manipulating the material. Certain scenes are clearly staged; action is sped up; the film is flipped for effect. As pure documentary, SALT FOR SVANETIA is not only specious, it's downright fraudulent. But it's also an absolutely stunning example of storytelling
without characters. Virtually every shot would make a gorgeous still photograph. The structure and pacing are flawless, building to the strong dramatic juxtaposition of birth and death, followed by a rousing montage of Russians to the rescue. Riefenstahl's love of naked male torsos in exertion had
nothing on Kalatozov's, nor did James Whale ever film a villagers-to-the-tower sequence with more power. (Graphic violence, nudity.)
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Undeniably brilliant filmmaking, from the newsreel camera of Mikhail Konstantinovich Kalatozoshvili (condensed to Mikhail Kalatozov). But is it a documentary? Upper Svanetia lies between the Caspian and Black Seas, at the convergence of two mountain range… (more)