Gunda Film Review (2020) Produced By Joaquin Phoenix
Executive producer Joaquin Phoenix’s latest film is a mesmerizing collaboration with famed Russian director Victor Kossakovsky. Lacking the factory farms or slaughterhouses of his earlier productions, neither does it rely on words, subtitles, music, or actors to get its message across.
Yet it’s not boring in the least! Watching it, I felt as if I were stepping back in time.
It’s magical to see Gunda and her tribe of piglets foraging in the grass at the woodlands’ edge, romping like a pack of puppies. Hearing their constant grunting and squealing over the sound of birds was like taking a trip back to my childhood!
It recaptured the days before cell phones and gadgets were constant distractions.
I grew up around farm animals, and Gunda reconnected me to early childhood experiences. And the ones when it was the most natural thing in the world to pause and watch the birds and animals – because I had nothing better to do. And the hours I passed playing outside amongst the trees, rolling around in the grass and dirt and brushing away the slightly annoying flies.
It stirred memories of other beautiful bugs, an ever-present buzzing during the summers of my youth.
In one unforgettable moment, dozens of dairy cows exit the barn. They run and buck with all the abandon of a group of young schoolchildren who can’t wait to get outside for recess. Then they gallop toward a pasture fence, like teenagers frantically making a break for it.
Whether following the frolicking cows, the one-legged rooster navigating over a log, or the growing piglets, the camera remains at its subjects’ level. Through the piglets’ eyes, the world is full of wonders to explore. That is when they are not driven by the desire to search for food or play with their siblings!
As an authentic picture of farm-animal life, Gunda has one disconcerting scene. At the 12-minute mark, what appears to be the tiniest piglet gets separated from the brood. Gunda seems to search carefully through the hay to find it.
But when she uncovers the struggling runt, what looked like maternal concern turns into a shocking sequence. Unexpectedly, she seems to step on her baby intentionally. Then, she carefully covers it beneath the hay and lies down as if to ponder what she’s done.
The question, “Did Gunda kill her baby?” raced through my mind, and I continued watching to learn if the little piglet was indeed dead. But the filmmakers chose not to provide an answer.
Perhaps she was putting the little one out of her misery. Through an online search, I discovered that captive gilt pigs like Gunda (under one-year-old) are known to “savage” their piglets. A sow usually behaves this way shortly after giving birth to her litter.
In an extreme case, she may even cannibalize them. According to the UK’s National Animal Disease Information Service (NADIS), gilt savaging occurs with about one of every 100 pig farm litters. But in severe conditions, that number may rise to one of every two!
Most of the time, Gunda interacts with her litter with the utmost tenderness and vigilance. That makes the apparent stomping even more distressing. Even so, by the final scene, I couldn’t help empathizing with her motherly concern.
Seeing the World through Other Eyes
As humans, we don’t share pigs’ understanding of life. But we can see that they do have a life! In Gunda’s scariest moment, we watch as a tractor toting a speared root-debris rake and pulling a storage container rolls into the barnyard. It backs up to the barn door – and as someone opens the container, frantic squealing starts.
What happens next is heartbreaking. After the tractor pulls away, Gunda slowly emerges from the barn. Desperately agitated, she spends the next 10 minutes frantically pacing the barnyard.
Every few paces, she stops to listen and sniff the air. Agitated, she’s looking for something. But only the silence from within the barn tells us what it is.
Obviously, from her perspective, a monstrous alien has just abducted her babies. Her facial “expressions” alone make Gunda well worth watching.
A French philosopher once wrote, “I think; therefore, I am.” Gunda leaves no doubt that all its subjects think and feel; the movie’s underlying message is that animals are sentient beings.
They think, therefore they are. And if we took the time to see life from their perspective, our voracious appetite for eating such marvelous creatures might cease to exist!