Some were bemused earlier this month when Joaquin Phoenix used his entirely expected Oscar win as a less predictable occasion for an impassioned animal-rights plea: It was certainly the first time bovine artificial insemination had been discussed amid the glitter and glistening tears of Hollywood’s biggest night. What we didn’t know, however, was how neatly the actor’s speech would dovetail into his next screen credit: as an executive producer on Victor Kossakovsky’s simple but entirely astonishing documentary “Gunda.” It’s not hard to imagine his words as the unspoken subtext to this wholly dialogue-free animal character study, in which an enormous sow on a Norwegian farmyard embarks on an emotive arc of motherhood without any need for human voiceover or twee anthropomorphism: just the still, searching power of an attentive camera.
The clear breakout title of this year’s inaugural Encounters competition at the Berlinale, “Gunda” was astutely snapped up for North American distribution by Neon, which has form in handling crowdpleasing eco-docs, following last year’s hit “The Biggest Little Farm” and the Oscar-nominated “Honeyland”: Given the right festival-circuit buildup, this unique arthouse item could follow the trajectory of either, or both. It should easily be the highest-profile release yet for Kossakovsky, the dynamic Russian nonfiction formalist who has become something of a pan-European auteur in the last decade, and whose recent, Sony Classics-steered “Aquarela” — a mighty, globe-trotting study of water in multiple, shifting forms — set the precedent for his latest exercise in wordless earthly observation.
Shot by the director and Egil Håskjold Larsen in sharply textured, high-contrast black and white on farms in Norway, Britain and Spain — though all its fields and pens feel of a piece thanks to the rich monochrome treatment — “Gunda” might seem, on the face of it, no match for the soaring, “Planet Earth”-style wonderment of “Aquarela.” Yet its unusually intimate point of view proves spectacular in its own right. A piglet may be cuter than a waterfall, though we’re pulled up short on our “awwwws” as the realities of farm life come to the fore. Without visible human interaction, Kossakovsky treats common farm animals as subjects, not objects, of intense fascination and empathy: a crucial distinction in a film that sets out to challenge our society’s perception of livestock as, well, less live than stock.
Though the film’s gaze will eventually take in magnificent cattle and a doughty one-legged chicken with equal awe, its focal point — or star, if you will — remains the eponymous Gunda, a majestic mother pig introduced in languid chiaroscuro close-up as her many newborn piglets struggle out of her, clamber over her, and suckle voraciously at her teats. It’s a few minutes before we directly see her face: To her children, she’s a resource rather than a being, just as pigs are to the humans who exploit them rather differently for nourishment. The absence of any narration (or, indeed, any emotionally leading music score) allows the viewer to ponder such ironies and cruelties at their own pace. Kossakovsky isn’t out to lecture or confront his audience with moral rhetoric or shock imagery, but to encourage understanding of farm animal life as it’s being lived — not just valuable at the point of death.
This has previously been achieved, of course, in such fictional porcine adventures as “Babe” and E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” Shorn of any humanized fantasy, “Gunda” arouses protective sentiment merely by showing the pigs’ drab everyday routines, which turn oddly riveting at close quarters, as the piglets grow, play, guzzle and instinctively separate into ranks — with one forlorn runt left lagging. Gunda, for her part, appears to weather the demands of child-rearing with as much exhausted, exasperated good humor as any new mother, though she stays broadly on top in any power struggle between her and her restless brood.
Kossakovsky and his team achieve this fluent, tactile naturalism through some ingeniously disguised artifice, often shooting the pigs in a more camera-equipped reproduction of their pen; Alexandr Dudarev’s extraordinary sound design intricately blends diegetic and repurposed sources to create the sense of a farm buzzing and chattering with life, even with its human residents permanently out of view. Segments on the aforementioned underdog chicken and the cows — given a marvelous cinematic entrance in charging slow-motion as they’re set free from barn to pasture — contribute to this tapestry, though aren’t given the crisp, clean narrative clarity of Gunda’s story, which we know can’t end happily. Kossakovsky frames the inevitable with both tactful restraint — rest assured this is G-rated material throughout — and stark, quietly wrenching impact, as the first (but still faceless) human imposition is made on this pastoral idyll.
To describe “Gunda” as any kind of pro-vegan screed, however, would be to misrepresent the ruminative, poetic delicacy of its approach. Its radiantly beautiful imagery and gently immersive storytelling aren’t in service of a single browbeating message, but a broader, holistic view of where we and the animals we rear, use and consume fit into a single circle of life. Charlotte, the calligraphically talented spider of the classic children’s novel, saved piglet Wilbur’s bacon by weaving the words “some pig” into her web, though the phrase was ambiguous and double-edged: Did they mean he was one hell of a pig, or just any old porker? “Gunda” similarly labels its heroine, though it doesn’t much matter whether she’s some pig or some pig: Perhaps a little more consideration is due either way.