In 1995, the Australian film "Babe" took animal-fantasy to a new level. Advanced animatronic technology brought the picture's many creatures — the dogs, the sheep, the singing mice, the freaked-out duck, the duplicitous cat and, of course, the lovable porcine protagonist — into a realm of almost-real beings and lent their emotions a new weight.
"Gunda," a wonderful new American-Norwegian documentary by Russian filmmaker Viktor Kosakovskiy, is unlike "Babe" in almost every way. There's no singing in it — there's not even any talking, because there are no humans. There's no score, either. All we hear over the course of the movie's 93 minutes are the sounds of nature: birdsong and fly-buzz mainly, and maybe the occasional soft crunch of a chicken foot pressing down into grass.
Also unlike the colorful "Babe," "Gunda" has been filmed in stately black and white. "Color can be overwhelming," Kosakovskiy explains in the movie's production notes. "Often, lush colors will make us focus on different things, such as the background. I didn't want to show cute pink piglets ... I didn't want to seduce the viewer in that way. It felt to me like black and white makes us focus on their soul rather than their appearance."
This spiritual concern is what does unite "Babe" and "Gunda." In the former movie, the titular piglet has been left an orphan after his mother was trucked away to a slaughterhouse. On Arthur Hogget's farm, where he winds up, he is adopted by a dog, a border collie whose own puppies have been sold off for children's Christmas presents. Another character — the duck, whose name is Ferdinand — is terrified by the impending arrival of the holidays, during which fowls such as himself are often featured on the family dinner table. "Christmas is carnage!" Ferdinand squawks.
There are no such narrative events in "Gunda" (there's no narrative). But the apparatus of animal subjugation is everywhere: In the battery cages where chickens are so tightly packed they can barely move, much less ever flap their wings, and in the chicken-wire fencing at which they can only peck, never to escape. After a herd of cows is shooed out of a metal barn into the disorienting sunshine, the camera moves in for a close-up on one cow's face, which is crawling with flies; her mournful eyes peer out from an ancient fate directly into the lens. It's one of several moments in the film in which we can feel a deep connection to these animals without being crudely nudged to do so.
Unlike "Babe," there's nothing cute about the titular star of this film, a weary, waddling sow who's being sucked dry by the dozen frisky piglets she recently birthed. Here we feel another connection — with the day-after-day exhaustion of any mother, in this case locked into an existence from which her only respite is an occasional flop in a puddle of mud.
The movie is not without charm. Most of it is provided by the piglets, who have the very piglet ability to look as if they're smiling as they lift up their heads to lap raindrops from the air during a sudden summer shower. But Kosakovskiy never lets us escape feeling the weight of these creatures' lives. He lets every shot, every scene, play out, unhurried. (Although, early on, there's a startling event on which he mercifully doesn't linger.) The movie has an uncanny intimacy: The director — who was also one of the camera operators (the other was Egil Huskjold Larsen) — makes us feel throughout that we're living right alongside these beings, trudging around their dusty, timeless world and wondering glumly how it would feel to be, for example, a one-legged chicken we see (in a sequence that seems to have been included rather arbitrarily).
It took Kosakovskiy 25 years to assemble the financing for this film, and it's easy to understand investor reluctance. The director's austere commitment to long takes, even in scenes in which very little is happening — we see a cow lying in a meadow, or the twitchy head of a chicken simply looking around — could be a formula for boredom, and maybe will be. (Since the pigs are the beating heart of the picture, one wonders how much improved it might have been by trimming the chicken and especially the cow segments.)
But the movie has a passionate attachment to the natural world and its inhabitants, whom humans often treat with blithe disregard and unthinking cruelty. (One of the film's producers is noted vegetarian Joaquin Phoenix.) "Gunda" never feels like animal-liberation propaganda — something Kosakovskiy says he took pains to avoid — but its message shines through. When you consider that James Cromwell, the actor who played Farmer Hogget in "Babe," converted to vegetarianism while making that film, you wonder what the cultural effect might be of a movie that covered similar moral ground with a darker force. The ending of this film, because it's real, is haunting in a way that very few viewers are likely to forget.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.