It’s a complicated time for movie theaters, to say the least. As more and more Americans are vaccinated, cinemas are trying to figure out what films will draw audiences back into their hallowed halls, where massive screens, booming surround sound and the smell of freshly popped popcorn offer a movie-going experience many of us have dearly missed over the last year. Venues are banking on the likes of major franchises to draw people back into their spaces, with blockbusters like In the Heights, No Time To Die (the latest James Bond film), Dune and more biding their time until theaters (and audiences) are on more solid ground and ready to return. Others are eagerly re-opening (albeit under limited capacity restrictions) and counting on the interest of a public long-since tired of watching everything from their couches.
And so, in the 13th month of a pandemic shutdown that’s upended our lives in every imaginable away, it just so happens that a 90-minute film about farm animals—a black-and-white, dialogue-free documentary, no less—may just be, nay should be, the movie that (assuming you’re vaccinated and taking all necessary precautions) gets movie lovers back to the movies. There is no way to describe Gunda, a remarkable, deeply emotional journey through the lives of a mama pig, her litter and their farm animal friends, that doesn’t make it sound, well, silly. If you’re picturing something like Babe for the arthouse set, you’re not too terribly off the mark, except that Gunda features some of the most stunning cinematography of recent memory, elicits emotional responses not typically equated with livestock and will have you rethinking your relationship to bacon within the film’s first half-hour.
Filmmaker Victor Kossakowsky has previously explored the wonder and intimacy of mother nature; 2018’s Aquarela explores the majesty and power of water (in its many forms) and how it shapes our world. Now, Kossakowsky goes from the macro to the micro in introducing us to Gunda, a Norwegian sow who, according to the filmmaker and evidenced in the resulting film, proved to be quite amenable to the filmmaker and his cameras. He and his crew created a special wooden sty for her, one that allowed them to remove panels and place the camera close to her and her new brood; by keeping track of her breathing and heart rate, they had an idea of when she’d be giving birth. And so, we join Gunda as her litter arrives, slippery and squealing and knowing innately to find their mother’s belly for the milk they need to nourish them upon their arrival. The rest of the film is spent in similar silent observation, the only soundtrack the chorus of farm noises and the grunting, crunching and pealing of the litter as they grow.
If cinema is meant to mesmerize, this is a quality Gunda has in spades, capturing our attention through simple, quiet moments and slowly enveloping us in the surprisingly eventful, complicated lives of this brood and their farm animal compatriots, including a herd of cows and a flock of chickens (even a one-legged one that manages just fine, thank you very much). The piglets grow up before our eyes, the passage of time obvious in their size but also in their expanding confidence as they follow Gunda on daily walks, exploring further and further away from their mother, or in their playfulness with each other, a dozen baby pigs rollicking in the mud like kids in a bouncy house, having the time of their lives. Through it all, Kossakowsky’s camera is just there to watch, just there to see what happens and share it with us; the filmmaker’s choice to shoot in black and white may seem pretentious at first, but actually the stark delineation of light and dark removes all distraction from the living beings on screen. We’re not looking at the greens of the grass or the browns of the hay, we’re intently focused on Gunda and her journey through motherhood.
Watching a film like Gunda, which absolutely should be seen on a big screen, is like floating across a lazy river where all you need to do is let the flow of the water carry you away on whatever path it has set out for you. Along the way, there’s plenty to see and appreciate, the beauty of the scenery crafting an unexpectedly insightful narrative that, once it’s over, will prove to be quite affecting in all its uncomplicated yet profound wisdom.
Gunda is now playing in select theaters, including at Music Box Theatre, and available via virtual cinema.
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