"Our Daily Bread" has an astounding eye for wonders and horrors, the awesome and the awful, for hidden sights, untold stories and key aspects of our world that we rarely get to see and might not necessarily want to. Once witnessed, however, these things cannot be forgotten.
This exceptional documentary, directed and photographed by Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter, has a most humble subject: the food we eat. It deals with the astonishing mechanization of modern food processing, revealing how organized, regularized and systemized the world of high-tech industrial foodstuff production has become. The film succeeds as well as it does both because of what it shows us and the artistry with which it is shown.
Though "Our Daily Bread" includes scenes of things like carcass disembowelment that could turn Conan the Barbarian into a vegetarian, its aim is far from the facile propagandizing of something like "Fast Food Nation."
Rather, director Geyrhalter and collaborator Wolfgang Widerhofer (credited with editing and dramatic structure) are concerned with underlining the surreal, almost extraterrestrial nature of preparing food products on a colossal scale. The filmmakers want us to think about the how and why of what we eat, about how strange and unnerving the building blocks of our world can appear if we know where to look.
"Our Daily Bread," which was shot across Europe between 2003 and 2005, also wants us to consider the nature of work, to understand how mindlessly repetitive and disagreeable so much of day-to-day labor is. By casting an unblinking eye toward dehumanizing jobs that are almost beyond imagination — harvesting semen from bulls is but one — it underlines how removed and unemotional even the most boggling activities can become.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, "Our Daily Bread" accomplishes all this without using interviews or narration of any kind. The only words we hear are bits of untranslated small talk from various workers. No one lets us know what we are seeing, and while some things like the harvesting of potatoes quickly become obvious, others, like the reason a newborn calf is surgically removed from the side of its mother, are not, and it's frequently necessary to simply guess at exactly what activity is taking place.
Despite this lack of narration, "Our Daily Bread" never fails to enthrall because of the impeccable eye — for composition, for color, for movement within the frame — of filmmaker Geyrhalter. While his camera often does not move, it invariably captures visuals that take us on a journey unlike any other because it is so otherworldly as well as so everyday.
Although the way the film orders things often feels random, "Our Daily Bread" soon develops rhythms of its own with sequences that routinely amaze, like a trip deep below the surface of the Earth to the caverns where salt is mined. These shots often involve benign activities such as sorting apples, blowing straw into cattle pens or harvesting and wrapping lettuce. But what unites them is the unimaginable scale on which they are often done and the indescribable Rube Goldberg machines that make that huge scale possible.
This is especially true in "Our Daily Bread's" more extended sequences, most of which involve the raising and slaughter of animals. To see the care and feeding of literally thousands of chicks makes the head swim, while more disturbing feelings come from watching the way hogs and cattle are executed and then efficiently sliced apart, gutted and cut into pieces by machines and machine-like humans on assembly lines.
Making these scenes somehow stranger is that they invariably take place in impeccably clean environments that the companies involved take understandable pride in. In fact, "Our Daily Bread's" closing credits take pains to thank "the friendly support" of those corporations that welcomed the filming.
If there is a hopeful aspect to "Our Daily Bread," it is that it chooses to acknowledge that the human impulse still exists around the edges of this soul-crushing food production machine that turns workers into automatons. A man takes a moment from a grotesque slaughterhouse job to answer his cellphone.
And when one of thousands of tiny, furry chicks accidentally falls to the floor, a woman can't resist caringly picking it up and carefully putting it back in its place. It may be an ultimately meaningless gesture, but seeing it allows us to feel that maybe there is a reason to hope for the human race after all.
No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Exclusively at the American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. Opens 7:30 p.m. tonight. Also: 5 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, and 5 p.m. March 4, March 11, March 18 and March 25. (323) 466-FILM, americancinematheque.com.