Salt for Svanetia review – poetic, dreamlike Soviet documentary of forgotten world

Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1930s film gives a fascinating account of a medieval-style society about the supposed blessings of the USSR’s modernising impact

In 1930, just as Luis Buñuel was releasing his classic L’Age d’Or, the Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov gave us the 55-minute silent movie Salt for Svanetia, an equally rich, strange and mysterious work of ethno-fantasy and social-surrealist reverie. It is theoretically a documentary about the blessings which Soviet modernisation brought to the remote community of Ushguli in the Svanetia province of north-west Georgia; it contains a people governed by tribal traditions going back to the middle ages. Working with editor and formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, and inspired by a magazine article by the writer Sergei Tretyakov, Kalatozov appears to have been initially undecided whether his film set in Svanetia would be fact or fiction. He settled – ostensibly – on the former.

The fundamental idea is that Svanetia’s people are on the brink of starvation because they have no salt, which their cattle need to lick to get vital mineral nutrients. They are surrounded by impassable mountains and glaciers so little or no salt can be brought in. Cattle have to lick the sweat from other animals or humans – one of many bizarre closeup vignettes – or from urine, or even blood. Clearly, a road built with Bolshevik industry will help them.

But wait. Audiences for this might well think … why now? Why is Svanetia in any more danger of starvation from lack of salt at this moment than at any other time in their long history? Could it be that the perennial salt problem is just a pretext to extend the Soviet empire of rational modernisation to include this backward medieval Shangri-La? And might it also be that Kalatozov’s imagination was itself inspired by the idea of a primitive secret society and that he exaggerated, speculated and arguably even invented the traditions in all their irrationality and dreamlike mystery?

Closed society … Salt for Svanetia.
Closed society … Salt for Svanetia. Photograph: Klassiki

Kalatozov spins a rich, exotic tale of a people whose tough battle against feudal princes earns them a fair bit of revolutionary respect. But their retrograde practices still need to be streamlined and modernised. They have their own style of haircuts; cue dreamlike closeup on snapping scissors which the film juxtaposes with their wool spinning and carding. There is an eerily powerful shot of cattle being taken on a rope-bridge over a river in full flood. A flint board is constructed for threshing and this is towed across a field to create something startlingly similar to our modern crop-circles. When a local potentate dies, a pregnant woman is thrown out of her house because to have a baby is considered impure in this time of grieving. The priest tells mourners to throw themselves into the grave. A horse must gallop until it dies; there is a brutal closeup on the dying horse’s head, and in 1930 there was no squeamishness about preventing animal cruelty on a film set. Once she has had her baby, the new mother is on the verge of dying of thirst while everyone else drinks their fill. Eventually, like a deus ex machina or the 7th Cavalry, a steamroller arrives, covered in upbeat Soviet slogans, to build the road to civilisation and save Svanetia from itself.

This ballet of strangeness was Kalatozov’s natural response to the unknowability of a closed society, deeply different from his own. It was a creative reaction offered in good faith, and spoke unconsciously of the Soviet coloniser’s feelings in the face of the vast reach of the Soviet empire and all the peoples who were very different from the secular urban proletariat on whom the October Revolution was founded. A cine-poem of awe.

• Salt for Svanetia is available from 29 September on Klassiki.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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