Toronto 2016: Salt and Fire review

You wait an age for a new Werner Herzog film and then three come along in the space of a year. In reality, the Bavarian director has always been fairly prolific but 2016 has seen his premier not, not two, but three new features. First came his mediation on the internet, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, followed by Netflix volcano doc Into the Inferno, and now his new fictional offering Salt and Fire. Like much of his recent scripted work, it's a mannered affair that's vague and clumsy.

It begins on an aeroplane with three scientists; Laura (Veronica Ferres), Fabio (Gael Garcia Bernal), and Meyer (Volker Michalowski) who, we learn in a strained piece of exposition with a flight attendant, are en route to South America to report on an ecological disaster. When they're abducted by rogue businessman Matt Riley (Michael Shannon) whose company are responsible for the problem, there seems to be an eco-thriller afoot. However, Herzog has made a concerted effort to defy expectations and overturn conventions. While the hazy didactic abides, the film segues into a contemplative philosophical debate and then an improvised third act shot in Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni salt flats.

It's clear that something strange is going on right from the opening scene with Ferres and Garcia Bernal painfully navigating some clunky dialogue. This is the case throughout Salt and Fire, which is littered with preposterous musings and every line intentionally overwritten to surreal effect. It calls to mind some of Herzog's older films with non-professional actors but on this occasion even the likes of Shannon and Garcia Bernal struggle to deliver the likes of: "The noblest place to die is where you die the deadest," or the glorious "Truth is the only daughter of time". They sound like lines that Herzog could deliver over stark and terrible natural landscapes in one of his documentaries - and there's more than a little Herzog in the character of Matt Riley - but in the context of a narrative conversation they don't work. It feels a lot like the director being contrarian for its own sake and it never quite comes off.

Where Salt and Fire does pick up though is when Riley inexplicably abandons Laura on a cactus island in the middle of the aforementioned salt flats with two almost blind infant boys with whom she does not share a language. Clearly improvised it creates some memorable moments, particularly one in which Laura catches the boys cheating at a board game. Suddenly she's humanised and there's a poignancy given a previous conversation in which she explains that she no longer has custody of her daughter. Better still is the overtly comic ending that involves a couple of moments of visual humour that act as a reminder of some of the clearly intentional silliness of the preceding hour and half. While it might not coalesce into something especially meaningful, Herzog has once again grafting something singular.

The Toronto Film Festival takes place from 8-18 September. For our coverage follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson


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