SALT FOR SVANETIA (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930)

It is an odd “documentary” that begins with a script, in this case, by Sergei Tretyakov, and indeed Mikhail Kalatozov’s silent Sol Svanetij is largely staged. It also swoons with selfconscious lyricism and is sickeningly cruel and violent.
     The film’s ostensible subject is the Svans, whose primitive, isolated Ukrainian existence copes with mountainous, snow- and glacier-ridden terrain. The scarcity of salt is both real and representative of the people’s hard lot. (We are shown a cow drinking human urine for the salt.) The film ends with the building of a road to connect Svanetia to salt and civilization. It was news to the Svans, who felt exploited by the filmmakers, that they weren’t “civilized.”
     In a long, grueling passage, a horse is ridden until its heart explodes from the furious galloping. One recalls Orson Welles’s great pride in the fact that not a single horse was injured during the filming of Chimes at Midnight (1965).
     The film’s best parts are the opening, which visually describes the location, and passages showing local labor, such as farming—there’s a shot from the viewpoint of a beast of burden—and the making of yarn, caps and rope out of lamb’s wool. However, a vignette of past warfare between freedom-loving folk and evil barons is close to ridiculous, as is a killer avalanche. Documentary material, then, surpasses the staged material; but the latter takes over.
     Kalatozov blames religion for the people’s “backwardness.” A sequence cross-cuts between a “rich” man’s opulent funeral ceremony and the ordeal of a pregnant peasant who has been driven from her home. The ox that is ritually slaughtered to honor the dead man might have fed the poor. The woman, alone in the wilds, gives birth. A dog licks the resultant blood for salt.

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