Francisca Alegria’s feature debut The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future (La vaca que cantó una canción hacia el futuro) begins with both nature, and with its contradictions. To the accompaniment of a fly’s audible buzzing and birdsong, a dead rat is seen lying on a bed of fallen, browned leaves. Growing from the autumnal mulch are brilliant red fly agaric mushrooms, and as the camera rises up the trunk of a tree, a new green vine tendril can be seen growing over older faded ones.
This is a paradoxical vision of seasonal, cyclical death and rebirth – as is confirmed by the lyrics of the song promised by the title, even if it is first heard sung chorally not by cows (they will take over its verses later in the film), but by fish in the polluted Cruces river of south-central Chile, recalling the doomed piscine narrators of Denis Villeneuve’s Maelström (2000) and Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing (2022). As we watch the fish first swimming in the water, and then flapping and dying en masse on the bank, their song mixes intimations of apocalypse and resurrection. “Is it that death is coming? Is the end nigh?”, they wonder, “but a drowned woman will come back soaked with life and like her we will return one day.”
That woman is Magdalena (Mía Maestro), who rises with a gasp from the bubbling waters, as young as she was when she drowned decades earlier, and still wearing the motorbike helmet in which she died. Without voice, without money, without anything but herself, Magdalena makes her way home to the family in which her absence has left a dysfunctional hole. Also returning to the family dairy is Magdalena’s now adult daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela) and Cecilia’s own children, teenaged, trans Tomás (Enzo Ferrada) and little Alma (Laura del Río), summoned from the city by Cecilia’s self-deprecating brother Barnardo (Marcial Tagle) after old Enrique (Alfredo Castro), Cecilia and Bernardo’s father, collapses at the sight of his wife Magdalena and ends up in hospital.
Managed by Bernardo under Enrique’s domineering eye, the dairy, like the surrounding river and woods, is in trouble. It is not just the fish that are washing up dead – aquatic plant life have also been affected, and in turn the local bird population has lost its food source. Rumours repeatedly ascribe the contamination of the river to the Araucana pulp factory – conjuring John Frankenheimer’s eco-horror Prophecy (1979) whose toxic disaster was also caused by a paper mill. Yet the problems here are more systemic: the hives looked after by this family’s elderly neighbour Felicia (María Velásquez) have lost their bees after a nearby property carried out a fumigation programme; and back at the dairy for the first time in years, Cecilia is all too quick to reach for insecticide spray when she sees a spider in the shower.
Amid impending environmental catastrophe, Magdalena will appear to the members of her family one by one, her restored presence both harming and healing, as a rebalancing of sorts takes place on a domestic as well as ecological scale. Inti Briones’s fluid cinematography, Pierre Desprats’ eerie score and some immensely evocative sound design work to create the atmosphere of uncanny melancholy. For at the heart of The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future is the fragile bond between mother and child – whether human, bovine or something more broadly bionomic – and the echoing anguish of its severing. Alegria’s magical realist allegory positions Magdalena all at once as mother and mother nature, and her return will counteract a family’s pernicious patriarchy as much as a place’s poisoning.
Mute yet material, like the revenants in Robin Campillo’s The Returned (2004) or Laura Casabé’s film of the same name from 2019, Magdalena is both quietly, insistently present, and perhaps not really there at all but merely the ghost of a memory of an idea of a symbol of what has long been missing in this messy family and has gone wrong in the world. She confronts the bullying, gaslighting, homophobic Enrique with his sins and guilt, she shows Bernardo a way out of his oppressive circumstances, she teaches Tómas to flow with the current – and she breaks through Cecilia’s brittle sense of abandonment, finally passing down to her daughter a lesson in how to accept and love Tómas for who they are in a way that Enrique has never accepted or loved his own children. This is not so much nature’s revenge as its renewal, in a film that, starting with a fecund river and ending in an arid desert, sings its weird lament for present loss and longing while still clinging vine-like to hope for future generations.
strap: Francisca Alegria’s feature debut is a magical realist allegory of death and renewal, on both a domestic and ecological scale
© Anton Bitel