Magical realism meets the real threat of environmental catastrophe in The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future, Chilean director Francisca Alegría’s feature debut following the success of her 2017 short And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye. Though the film can at times feel long-winded—a common predicament when transitioning from shorts to features—it is a heady and hypnotic parable for the irreparable ecological harm humans have committed, while insisting that it’s not too late to connect and reconcile with the land that nurtures us.
When the toxic runoff from a cellulose factory begins polluting the Cruces River in verdant south-central Chile, fish begin dying in droves. As their corpses float atop the drifting water and begin to wash ashore, a haunting hymn appears to escape their lifeless lips. “Come close to us,” they chant in booming unison. “Is the end nigh?” Just when their urgent melody concludes, a woman named Magdalena (Mia Maestro) springs forth from the water’s depths, long hair cascading over a leather jacket and her hand clutching a motorcycle helmet. She gasps for air, crawling out of the river while still coughing up water. It turns out she died in these very waters decades earlier—her death ruled a suicide by local police—and has some unfinished business with the family that has grown up and moved on in her prolonged absence. When she walks into an electronics store to appear before her would-be widow (Alfredo Castro), he immediately suffers an acute heart attack. Worried about her father’s hysterical insistence that her dead mother has returned from the grave, Cecelia (Leonor Varela) brings her two children to spend some time with her on the family’s dairy farm while she cares for the aging patriarch. Little do they know, the cows also have a song to sing, and Magdalena’s presence is more than an old man’s apparition.
Though the premise hints at a horror movie, The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future never ventures into supernatural vengeance. Instead, the film incorporates the horrors of the world around us—ecological, political, domestic—to craft a modern fable of immense guilt slowly transforming over time into paralyzing denial, complete with a resolution that promotes the prosperous power of atonement. This is most evident in the resurrected Magdalena’s various encounters with her family, nearly all of which attempt to negate her very existence. Even when Cecelia and her brother individually encounter Magdalena roaming the farm’s grounds, they are too encumbered by shame to say anything. The only family member who forges an earnest connection with the mute matriarch is Tomás (Enzo Ferrada), Cecelia’s gender-combattant teen, who feels an affinity for the woman who was also said to clash with the feminine expectations of being a wife and mother. “You took me to another planet where people understood each other without words,” Tomás says to their reanimated grandmother, who simply holds their gaze and smiles in return. Though her children refuse to acknowledge her return, her grandchild does—a recognition that also aids in freeing Magdalena from the pressures of her past dynamic in the family.
This theme of healing and transformation is also likely a personal plea on behalf of the filmmaker in urging Chile—and humanity at large—to own up to and further prevent such devastating incidents of ecological neglect. In 2004, the Cruces river actually did suffer pollution shortly after the Valdivia Pulp Mill opened, resulting in the death or forced migration of 96.4% of the black-necked swan population in the area. The destabilization of the ecosystem caused a conflict between citizens of nearby Valdivia and the company that owned the cellulose factory, but the swans never did come back, and it appears no further protections were enacted. The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future is Alegría’s assertion that we can only move forward by candidly confronting and protecting what we have previously harmed. Hope is far from lost, despite the prevalence of despondent environmental nihilism—the nature of Earth is to breed and support new life, an act of cultivation that is either hugely abetted or quashed by human intervention. It’s not too late to confront, assess and ameliorate the damage we’ve already done, as long as we’re not too cowardly to admit that we’ve seriously fucked up.
Director: Francisca Alegría
Writer: Francisca Alegría, Fernanda Urrejola, Manuela Infante
Stars: Leonor Varela, Mia Maestro, Alfredo Castro, Marcial Tagle, Enzo Ferrada, Luis Dubo?
Release Date: January 23, 2022 (Sundance)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.