Synopsis: Experiential cinema in its purest form chronicling the unfiltered lives of a mother pig, a flock of chickens, and a herd of cows with masterful intimacy.
Director: Viktor Kosakovskiy
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.5/10)
Review: I couldn’t have known it at the time but I’m sort of miffed at myself for busting out my whole argument about how you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear back in August for my review of the dreadful horror movie The Pale Door. I thought (correctly) that it applied in that situation but oh, do I wish it was fresh so it could truly make its debut here and now for Viktor Kosakovskiy’s languid documentary Gunda. It’s literally about a sow and one could argue the filmmaker has made a 93-minute dialogue-free, scoreless attempt at a silk’s purse that winds up awfully rough for those going in with the wrong expectations. Set your expectations correctly and Gunda may sizzle your bacon just right. Fail to know what you are undertaking, and you best gird your loins for a long sit.
I actually thought I would be able to take Gunda and not just because I’m kind to animals, read Charlotte’s Web at least once a year as a child, and am not so sure Babe didn’t deserve the Oscar for Best Picture. I can take non-narrative documentary features just fine and honestly, who needs a score when you have the pleasant sounds of nature to make beautiful harmony throughout? The use of black and white cinematography is always an intriguing choice and to be perfectly frank, after a series of loud and obnoxious movies lately I was looking forward to a step back from all that noise, feeling good and ready for a down on the farm kind of evening. There was just one small thing about the film I failed to notice. That I should have noticed. That I regretted not noticing.
You see, Gunda was directed by Viktor Kosakovskiy, the same Russian filmmaker who unleashed Aquarela back in 2018. In case you missed that bore wonder, it’s another documentary without any spoken dialogue that explores water and ice around the world…and that’s about it. Just endless shots of water and ice and water and ice and water and ice. You’d think from a production standpoint a movie like that would be impressive to look at, but it wasn’t even interesting enough to be distracting accidentally. Amazingly, it has a high aggregator score which goes to show you pretentiousness wins out over everything else, including entertainment.
I figured out Kosakovskiy was behind Gunda mere moments before it started and was prepared for a similar experience, wondering if I’d have to save Gunda a spot on my worst of the year list just like I had for Aquarela. Happily enough, Gunda is more focused than its predecessor, with Kosakovskiy appearing more attuned to the subjects which have shape and some order to them. Mostly about our titular sow and her new littler of piglets but occasionally drifting to other members of the farm like a one-legged chicken and some free-wheeling cows, all things that pass in front of the camera are presented at face value, nothing more and nothing less. A shocking moment within the first five minutes feels like it needs some kind of visual coda, but Kosakovskiy frustratingly denies it to his audience for no real reason.
Plenty has been made about the camera work being something to behold, but to me it didn’t feel any different than our highest level of nature photography. Have any of these people even seen a program on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel in their lives? I don’t need to see five minutes straight of piglets nursing, nor do I need a similar sequence repeated in random locations around the barn and acres of land they call home over the course of the picture. One moment the young pigs are exploring their new surroundings stretching their legs and the next they are hungry and poor Gunda is on her side again. If this were a film for young children, I could see some of the importance in guiding them through the growing process of baby animals as an educational tool. If Kosakovskiy had really considered his adult audience that would probably be undertaking his work, he’d understand most of us don’t need to see the same event over and over again to understand its significance.
Everything in Gunda just takes time. Lots of it. Chickens walk s-l-o-w-l-y through a field, and you’ll feel each and every step they make as the camera follows practically each blade of grass they disturb along the way. Again, in short bursts these are dazzling sights but nearly every sequence goes on twenty times longer than it must and that winds up robbing the original impressive awe of some of its magic. The only passage that makes sense is Gunda’s effective conclusion which is stretched to an eternity…this time with real purpose. It’s one of the main reasons why the movie is worth sitting through and will stick with you for a while after, bouncing around in your brain, unable to shake off its meaning and the part many of us play in it. Had the rest of the film justified itself likewise, Gunda could have been a valuable piece of art for all instead of a narrow-focused experiment for some.