The first documentary from British writer-director Andrea Arnold following a string of acclaimed narrative features (Fish Tank, American Honey) isn’t silent, per se—its bovine subjects make quite a bit of noise, plus there are the ambient sounds respective to life on the farm—but it nevertheless conveys something similar to the splendor that radiates from the best of silent cinema. Depicting the life of dairy cow Luma, starting with her birth and initial separation from her mother, Arnold creates a testimony to the intricacies of being à la F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise and King Vidor’s The Crowd; the film covers Luma’s years as a calf to those she spends breeding to, finally, the twilight of her short life. This is the natural cycle for most living creatures, yet Arnold all but humanizes the cow with her benevolent lens. Scenes of Luma as a calf are shot like she’s a human child, confused by the separation from her mother but ultimately resilient and playful; a sequence of her mating with a bull is accompanied by fireworks and what could be termed foreplay, like a scene depicting the consummation of a couple in a romantic drama; and her years as an older cow find Luma obstinately protective over new calves in the herd. The film’s anthropomorphism is less Disneyesque than it is philosophical, considering humanity as an idea that could be extended to animals as well as people. Music is always an important factor in Arnold’s films, and that remains the case here, with contemporary indie and R&B hits on the soundtrack (including one by former Chicagoan Angel Olsen), mostly as they’re being played over the dairy farm’s speakers. Arnold is noted for her depictions of life on the fringes, a guiding concern that extends to our bovine heroine. Its ending, a key point in critical discussion around the film, might shock some viewers, though it shouldn’t—perhaps us humans are just less accepting of life’s fleetingness than Luma is. 97 min.
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