There's no denying the eerie beauty of the imagery in Nikolaus Geyrhalter's abstract documentary Our Daily Bread, even when his long, static takes are trained on machines ripping pig carcasses to shreds. Throughout his career, the Austrian director has prized artful composition over journalism, and in Our Daily Bread, he eschews the barely muted rage that's been a significant part of similar state-of-the-global-food-industry documentaries like Darwin's Nightmare and We Feed The World. Geyrhalter includes no statistics, no interviews, and no onscreen titles that explain what we're seeing. Instead, for an hour and half, he shows crops being harvested and animals being slaughtered, both in sterile factory settings, while men and women in coveralls dispassionately sort the debris.
The non-sensationalized "this is what really happens" approach makes Our Daily Bread extra-creepy at times, especially when a line of women calmly pluck squirming baby chicks from passing bins and toss them like ping-pong balls down metal chutes, or when two men cut a calf out of its mother, then walk away with the baby, leaving the cow standing there with a huge, bloody hole in her side. Geyrhalter contrasts the nightmarish with the benign, moving from butchery to crop cultivation and back again, always pausing to show the workers enjoying a sandwich between shifts. And he saves the worst for last, ending with the protracted, gruesome process through which beef cattle become steaks.
Does Our Daily Bread need a full 90 minutes to make an impact? Not necessarily. Yes, Geyrhalter may be making a point about how the horrific becomes routine, by rubbing it in our face until we cease to be shocked, but that final slaughterhouse scene is pretty hard to shake off, and isn't made any less or more so by the long scenes of broccoli-picking that precede it. Still, on a shot-by-shot basis, much of Our Daily Bread is stunning, from the graceful yellow bi-plane that gasses a field of sunflowers to the infernal light that flares behind a row of hanging pigs as they head into the gutting room.