‘The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future’ Review: A Chilean Parable as Entrancing as Its Title

Hundreds of fish lie dead on a riverbed. A lone (lonely?) cow ambles around late at night in a forest. A flock of birds fly in discordant unison up above. The arresting images of nature gone awry in Francisca Alegría’s “The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future” are but the first clues that this rural-set Chilean feature has a distinct ecological interest. This hypnotic tale about how hard it can be to heal earthly and familial wounds marks a singular feature debut from the director of 2016 short “And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye.”

Aptly matching its dizzying and obfuscating title, the film opens with a premise that owes much to Latin America’s most treasured literary genre: magical realism. A young woman, with a motorcycle helmet in tow, emerges from the river where she presumably committed suicide decades ago. She washes ashore only slightly disoriented, caring little for the muddied state she’s in. Audiences, who have been offered an extended view of the verdant landscape around this mystery woman, including of the many fish who will soon be found dead in her wake, have heard a choral song that elucidates (though doesn’t quite clarify) what’s happened: “We’ve lived in agony since she passed away,” the voices sing, “but a drowned woman will come back soaked with life. And like her, we will return one day.” Alegría puts us immediately in a world where spirituality and ecology co-exist, where haunting presences have tangible connections with the physical realm.

Magdalena, as the woman is called, is played with wide-eyed and grounded wonder by Mia Maestro. The actress, who doesn’t utter one word throughout the entire film, has the difficult task of nevertheless making Magdalena’s many wants and needs communicable as she embarks on a journey toward a dairy farm where she’ll come face to face with a family that’s seemingly moved on since her death. That includes her husband Enrique (Alfredo Castro), now gray-haired and cantankerous; her son Bernardo (Marcial Tagle), who’s struggling to keep the farm afloat; and her daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela), who’s rushed back from the city with her two children upon word of a family emergency. But it’s perhaps with Cecilia’s teenager that Magdalena ends up connecting with the most. After all, Victor (Enzo Ferrada), who insists on wearing femme clothing and demands Cecilia abide by using she/her pronouns, has long been told she looks like that picture of Magdalena that was published in the newspaper alongside news of her suicide.

Even from such a piecemeal description, it’s clear “The Cow” has several interlocking thematic and storytelling threads in its mind. Magdalena’s arrival, for instance, has the hallmark of a ghostly tale (she even makes technology glitch wherever she goes). Her return suggests unfinished business, with her family — and with Enrique in particular. But given Magdalena’s ties to the natural world and Alegría’s interest in connecting this ghostly presence to contemporary ecological concerns (those dead fish, the brutality of dairy farming, even a decimated bee colony), the magical realism of this hypnotic story becomes wrapped up in urgent 21st-century concerns.

That includes Victor’s own journey of self-discovery (“While you live at home you’ll be my son,” Cecilia intones in exasperation), which ends up running parallel to Magdalena’s licentious experimentation once she connects with a local biker gang of protesters intent on bettering the area’s environment. The early bickering conversations between Victor and Cecilia, wherein the teenager (sporting a crop top and some playful jewelry) corrects her mother about her newly claimed identity (“I am the same person”) oddly ends up setting up the way in which Magdalena’s arrival will be casually taken for granted by those she’d known in life. Magical realism allows for the extraordinary to not only be seen as ordinary but to be able to destabilize what it is about the ordinary that we take for granted.

Rather than let its timely concerns be embalmed in didacticism, Alegría has crafted a film about healing generational trauma through new modes of living and experiencing desire — of reshaping the world in a way that feels inclusive and expansive, and which does away with relics of a past that should be left to rot at the bottom of a river. An idiosyncratic proposition from the start, Alegría’s debut is a wonder precisely because, even as it borrows bits of genre pieces from here and there, the film firmly cements its director as a distinctive voice in Chilean cinema. With the help of Inti Briones’s earthly cinematography, which defamiliarizes the nature he so carefully captures with his camera, and Pierre Desprats’s swooping and haunting orchestral score, Alegría has created a modern-day fable that aims to remind us to live fully and to be in and of this world with such force you cannot help but be bowled over by its keen-eyed ambition.

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