‘Cow’ a moo-ving documentary about a Holstein’s life on the farm




Not rated. On VOD.

Grade: A-

A sublime and tremendously moving portrait of the life of an English dairy cow named Luma, Andrea Arnold’s “Cow” is a real-life bovine “Bambi” and the second 2022 film to land on my 10 best list, along with another nature documentary, “The Velvet Queen,” a film about the snow leopard of Tibet.

In the tradition of the work of the great Cambridge-based documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, “Cow” has no narration, although we hear occasional words spoken by farm workers and once by an off-camera woman, presumably Arnold. Viewers are a “fly on the wall,” in some cases one of thousands, watching what is going on on a seeming day-to-day basis with Luma, beginning with the birth of a new calf. As is presumably standard with newborns, the calf is taken away to the obvious dismay of Luma, to be raised in a cell of its own and fed milk until it has grown. I assumed this was done to protect the newborn from the other cows and keep it safe until it reached an age where it was less likely to be injured accidentally.

Luma is a white-faced black-and-white Holstein cow with black patches beneath both eyes. A worker with a rubber glove up his arm inspects Luma and declares her healthy. The floors of the large, labyrinthine barn are full of rails and pens and covered in hay and cow excrement. There are areas for certain activities such as milking and odd apparatuses for shaving hooves.

We see the cows prompted by workers sent outside to pasture to feed on the fresh, green grass of the open fields, where they remain overnight under the stars. Chevrons of geese fly high overhead, honking. More flies torment the cows. Tails and ears flop without stop to protect the animals. The workers refer to the cows as “girlies” and whistle, shout and wave their arms to get them moving. Luma mates with a bull and becomes pregnant again. The workers use twine to tie a newborn’s legs and pull it out of the womb. Luma lashes out more than once at the handheld camera that records her life. She is aware of its presence. We gaze upon one of her eyes, wondering how much it takes in. Luma calls out for the second calf after it is separated from her. Her maternal instinct is obvious. Luma often appears to ruminate, thinking cow thoughts. Is the treatment of such dairy cows ethical?

According to PETA, cow farms are places where cows are exploited, abused and murdered. The farms are also pollutant factories in terms of excrement and carbon dioxide. The farm in “Cow” is arguably a more benevolent place, where the animals are treated well by a team of trained and friendly workers. “Cow” will remind many of Viktor Kossakovsky’s wonderful, award-winning 2020 nature film “Gunda.” While I was not as high on “American Honey” as some of my colleagues, I have admired Arnold’s “Red Road” and “Fish Tank.” The “Cow” soundtrack, which I thought was maybe played in the barns for the cows, is a collection of “easy listening” music by such artists as Billie Eilish, The Pogues and Kelsy Lu. Moo?

(“Cow” contains scenes of a cow in distress and a cow being put down.)


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