“Gunda” opens with an image that may stay with you forever. There’s the wall of a barn, see, and in that wall there’s a doorway, and in that doorway there’s a pig. The pig, a big sow, lies on her side and wheezes softly, head in the sunlight, the rest of her extending into the darkness of the barn. Something rustles in the hay behind her and then ― whoa ― out tumbles a piglet, freshly born. Then another. And another.
Eventually there are 12 of them (I think ― have you tried counting piglets?), scrambling to line up for their mother’s milk like senior citizens at a buffet. As the camera settles in and lets us watch the scrum, you may become attentive to what this film is telling us and the ways in which it does so. The images are a crisp black-and-white, each downy strand of fuzz on each piglet rendered hyper-real and sharp. The soundtrack is rich with the ambience of Norwegian farm life: far-off mooing and machinery, grunts close by, the wind running underneath it all. There’s no narration, no dialogue, no people. The shots are held long, and longer, and then longer still. After a while, you get it. We’re on animal time.
“Gunda” ― which doubles as the name of the movie and the name of the pig ― is as close as we may ever come to experiencing the world as animals do, specifically the animals that become our food. Conceived and directed by the Russian documentarian Viktor Kosakovskiy, it’s an astonishing labor of love, a work of pure cinema, and an experimental film that, once you adjust your metabolism, is universally accessible. It has moments of high comedy (most of which involve chickens) yet the final moments are as gut-wrenchingly tragic as anything written by Shakespeare, if Shakespeare had written about pigs.
Kosakovskiy shoots from his subjects’ eye-levels, an approach that reveals new worlds. The farm’s chickens move through what to us is a tangle of bushes but to them is a lush, unending jungle of greenery. The cows are met head-on, and there’s an exhilarating sequence midway through that consists of a series of cow close-ups, their gazes meeting ours as the camera swivels around them. It’s the superhero shot, bovine division, and it imbues the animals with grace and individuality.
“Gunda” doesn’t flinch from the harder facts of life. There’s a runt of the piglet litter and then there isn’t, and its fate will shock tender-hearted viewers who like to project human emotions onto non-human beings. “Babe” this isn’t, nor is it “Charlotte’s Web.” The movie avoids anthropomorphism every chance it gets and insists instead on the literal presence of animal existence ― a “now” that never ends. Kosakovskiy doesn’t grant his creatures humanity, but he goes one better. He grants them, and us, kinship.
Which makes the final scenes of “Gunda” all the more devastating. (Spoilers follow.) We’ve followed the piglets into the summer and adolescence, a happy wallow that could go on forever. And then they’re gone ― Kosakovskiy shoots the occurrence obliquely, but we know exactly what’s happening ― after which their mother, Gunda, wanders into a pigpen emptied of life. She runs in circles calling for them, dashes into the barn and back out again, stands in animal incomprehension only to repeat the process, as if the looking will eventually bring her children or an answer into sight. The shot follows her for an eternity ― 10 long, heartbreaking minutes ― at the end of which Gunda turns and stares straight at the camera, at Kosakovskiy, and, through them, at us. The look isn’t accusing (that would be anthropomorphism), but simply a cold, emotionless regard. A look to freeze the fork on the way to your mouth.
Directed by Viktor Kosakovskiy. Written by Viktor Kosakovskiy and Ainara Vera. At Kendall Square. 93 minutes. G