Chilean filmmaker Francisca Alegría’s feature debut The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future begins with a brief tour of the local ecosystem. The camera glides over a dead rat, poisonous mushrooms, and ants navigating a tree trunk before rising up to reveal the River Cruces. The long stretch of water glistens in the sun but under the surface, something supernatural is brewing.
Simultaneously a ghost story, a portrait of familial grief, and a meditation on environmentalism, The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future is essentially the full-length contemplation of Alegría’s 2017 Sundance award-winning short film And The Whole Sky Fit In The Dead Cow’s Eye. The feature propels into action when Magdalena (Mia Maestro) rises from the dead. Bursting out of the river where she committed suicide, she clambers onto the muddy bank and gasps for air surrounded by fish doing the very same. The film then tracks Magdalena’s wanderings into her past life – with mud streaked on her cheeks and her leather jacket still saturated – as she reunites with those she left behind.
With its haunting depiction of loss, Alegría’s genre-blending film effortlessly melds magic realism and grounded drama. The camera closely observes as Magdalena’s connection with civilization is steeped with sci-fi elements; in her presence, technology buzzes into life. While electronics whir, her widowed husband (Alfredo Castro) is struck with debilitating shock. Declaring his wife has risen from the dead, their daughter, Cecilia (Leonor Varela), now with her own children, is quick to return to the family’s dairy farm to care for him.
Magdalena’s presence, akin to a cold chill in the room, divides the household. She wanders through a once familiar world and is met with shock from the housekeeper, Felicia (María Velásquez), but fierce anger from her daughter. When they come face to face in the beautifully eerie woods, Alegría frames their meeting like a Western standoff in a wide shot that only emphasizes the distance forged between them. With grief bubbling to the surface, a complex, multifaceted reality of loss rekindled comes to the foreground.
It is rather astonishing how much Maestro’s performance is able to communicate with complete silence. Expressing multitudes in quietude, she imbues the otherwordly character with warmth, despite the chill that arrives with her return. Similarly, Varela’s execution as a studious but stressed surgeon ties the family together. It is in her resistance to receiving her mother again that Alegría finds a focus. Varela gently crumbles Cecilia’s hard shell, she softens to the world around her and becomes open to tangling herself in the roots of the world she had left behind.
Magdalena’s supernatural presence uproots not only Cecilia’s life, but her surroundings too. Local wildlife begins dying en masse; fish wash up dead, bees return drowsy, and the cows become plagued by unexplained ailments. The cyclical nature of life and death orbits the film with its ponderings on mother nature, and cinematographer Inti Briones does a fantastic job of framing such devastation with atmospheric emotion. The merging of the human and the natural is subtly captured; climate protesters ride their bikes in the triangle formation of birds and the river’s powerful current seems to run through Magdalena’s body with fantastical power.
The merging of the human and the natural is subtly captured; climate protesters ride their bikes in the triangle formation of birds and the river’s powerful current seems to run through Magdalena’s body with fantastical power.
The most tender moment in the film, somewhat surprisingly, is between Cecilia and an isolated cow. One night she ventures into the nearby woods to clear her head and comes across a cow with a 2222 tag on its ear. In what could be a silly moment, Alegría lingers and lets imagination spiral. The lone cow – appearing like an omen, angel, or fabled creature – is especially mysterious when the next morning it is back in its pen to be inseminated. Unexpectedly emotional, the quiet scene is only bolstered into soft devastation when it’s revealed Magdalena was vehemently opposed to their cows being separated from their calves in order to collect their milk for profit. Here, Alegría draws parallels between Cecilia’s relationship with motherhood and that of postpartum livestock. Such pointed commentary on the exploitation of animals for human benefit underscores much of the film but in this feminine comparison, it becomes unavoidable.
The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future also harbors an environmentalist perspective in its soundscape. The film fuses an evocative soundtrack with subtle lyricism and natural calls of mother nature; flora and fauna seem to harmonize like a choir. The cow’s moos add another layer and, after a while, begin to sound like cries. “We see death ahead” is hauntingly sung, giving voice to the landscape that has been subjected to the greedy hands of profit-hungry men. While navigating mythic possibility, such pointed thought roots Alegría’s more hypnotic sequents in a very real, taut tension.
The film is embedded in this moment of transition. The sun is always low, setting or rising, in a time of discovery, realization, and attempted healing. The former directly relates to one of the film’s central family members, Tomás (brilliant Enzo Ferrada). Magdalena’s gender-nonconforming grandchild is exploring their identity but parallels are drawn between them and Magdalena. Alegría cuts from Magdalena’s bare feet traversing the road to Tomás’ own treading down a pier, the visual connection also develops into something more emotional. Magdalena seems to find belonging in the presence of Tomás, both shown to be outsiders in this world. With them, Magdalena manages to “speak” and, subsequently, be heard.
The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future is a wonderfully nuanced portrait of intergenerational connection and the cost of just taking from the landscape that gives so much. With powerfully meditative and thoughtful handling, Alegría’s folkloric film may start with death but concludes on a more optimistic note. Hope lingers that it’s not too late for Magdalena’s family to wake up to the world around them, and maybe it’s possible for us to do the same.
Read our exclusive interview with Francisca Alegría here.
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