"Gunda" is a very special film, and one that's difficult to review. As I set out to write this essay, I don't know if it'll be very short or rather long.
This Norwegian documentary is about life on a farm, centering in particular -- though hardly exclusively -- on a mother pig and her farrow of piglets. We watch them grow from tiny newborns to little scamps to big, burly shoats crashing into each other and causing delightful mayhem. They do other pig things like snooze contentedly in mud while the flies flicker around, a haze of buzzing they do not mind.
There is also a long stretch of "chicken cam" where we observe chickens, including an uppity one-legged fellow, following at their eye level or even from their perspective. And a sequence of cows who are caught running in slow motion, or regarding us from their grazing field without any particular interest in the camera.
And... that's it. That is the entire movie.
It is unspeakably beautiful, shot in luminous black-and-white by Egil Håskjold Larsen and Viktor Kossakovsky. I can only imagine the patience and artistry involved in setting up and manipulating their cameras, which often move in long, slow sweeps, tracking shots and pans. "Gunda" should be shown to all aspiring cinematography students.
There are no humans, at all. Mankind and our clumsy intrusions are not seen or heard, except for the wheels of a tractor near the end. There is no voiceover or title cards; the movie is utterly wordless. People seem almost not to exist in this little world, though of course we know they must.
I see that Joaquin Phoenix served as an executive producer, so I'm thankful at least there was no reprise of his loopy Oscar speech about cow insemination.
(People sometimes ask what the role of an executive producer is on a movie, as some can have a half-dozen or more listed. The truth is no one really knows, because it means whatever the people involved want it to mean. Generally speaking, though, on smaller films like this it indicates somebody with a big profile has lent their name to help the movie get made or distributed. That's it. They had no active role in the creative process whatsoever. It is not unusual in Hollywood for the star of a small movie to never meet their executive producers, or possibly even know who they are until it comes out and they see the name on the credits along with everybody else.)
Like "Nanook of the North," "Gunda" is an exercise in pure cinema. It is a throwback, the original kind of documentary: just observation without a narrative structure. It does make me wonder why it has two people credited as screenwriters, Ainara Vera and Viktor Kosakovskiy, who also served as director.
Since they didn't know what would happen until they filmed it, how could they "write" the movie? If you're deciding how to assemble footage after the fact, that's the editing process, not creating a screenplay. Was there ever actually a real script for "Gunda," like a printed booklet of pages with everything that happens?
If there was, and it actually existed before they filmed the pigs and other critters, then it calls into the question the authenticity of what we're seeing.
The documentary genre certainly has come a long way, much of it recently, I deem, in the wrong way. So many are just partisan political tirades or "explorations" of a topic that the filmmakers had decided on the correct outcome before anything had been shot. A newer animal is last year's Oscar-nominated "The Mole Agent," which as near as I can figure is a documentary about the making of the documentary.
So I've written a fair amount of words about "Gunda" but not really told you want I think of it. Maybe it's because I'm having a hard time coalescing what I do think about it.
Certainly, this is not the most entertaining 93 minutes you'll ever see. If you're not intimidated by a single shot of suckling piglets that goes on for six or seven minutes, their fuzzy little heads groping for the teat, then this may be an experience you can genuinely enjoy.
If you don't have a lot of patience or aren't in the mood for something this slow-moving and placid, then I'd probably advise you to stay away.
I don't ever read what other critics have to say about a movie before I review it, but I did see a pull-quote in the trailer that says, "This is a film to take a bath in," which I think is an awfully good description. My counterpoint would be, are you the type of person who thinks just sitting in a bath, doing nothing but staring at your toes, is a luxury or a dreadful bore?
I'm the sort of person who likes the idea of a bath, but every time I take one I lose patience after about four minutes.
One thing I can definitively say is this is exactly the sort of film that will play much better in a cinema than on your TV at home. Some movies just need the dark magic of a theater to wrap you up in the experience. "Gunda" requires your undivided attention and the indulgence of your time to be properly seen.
So we're at the end of this review and I see I landed on "long," as I'm writing this quickly and, as Mr. Twain famously once said, it takes more effort to write short. But aren't you impressed that I looked up "farrow," the proper term for a group of baby pigs?