Gunda, an expressive female pig, has just given birth to a litter of incredibly adorable piglets on a Norwegian farm. Their shrill cries, as they all fight for food at the same time, herald their first bonding session with mom and with each other. From the moment we are invited into the hay-filled mansion, our eye contact with her and her cubs is always close. Photographed with natural light and a sensitivity to chiaroscuro, the black and white frames play with shadows and silhouettes.
With the camera low to the ground and moving quickly through the open spaces, Kossakovsky and his co-cinematographer Egil Haaskjold Larsen prioritize the animal point of view. Their visual language obliges the viewer to discover the world at eye level and not from a position of domination. There’s a miraculous blend of craftsmanship and cooperation implied in the astonishing closeness with which they have immortalized all of their non-verbal subjects, including a daring one-legged chicken.
As the small flock of chickens inspects steep terrain in the vegetation, they appear to be explorers in a new earth or astronauts on an alien planet entering the unknown. There is a sense of discovery in the way the hesitant winged friends roam for what appears to be their first time out of a cage. Kossakovsky lets us into their secret lives; we are guests who marvel at their commitment with a freedom so often denied.
On the rare occasion of a wide shot, we witness the domain of Gunda or that of the supporting cast. This is especially relevant in an epic scene of unrestrained cattle running around, or as we see the energetic young pigs chasing their mothers. Time has passed and they are much bigger but just as fun. Each segment follows its course quietly, replacing zoological research with reflective study.
Kossakovsky engenders significant character development, both disarming and unvarnished. It’s in the way the cows look directly at the camera or in the way they help each other eliminate bugs, in the way Gunda feeds her brood or placidly basks in the mud, or how an angelic piglet bathed in the warm morning light strangely enters outside. . “Gunda” operates with the spiritual grandeur of a Terrence Malick film and an underlying, non-militant plea to rethink our relationship with the animals we have rejected as submissive and only valuable inasmuch as they serve as food.