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Magical realism and environmental activism come together with mixed results in “The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future.”
The debut feature from Chilean director and co-writer Francisca Alegria is a parable about the destruction humans have wrought upon the planet. But she presents that plea in the form of a more intimate story about a fractured family that needs healing. Mia Maestro wordlessly gives a haunting performance—literally and figuratively—as a woman who returns to her family and village decades after her mysterious death and finds everything has deteriorated. Her arrival also raises the intriguing question so many of us who’ve lost a parent have pondered: If you could speak to your mother again, what would you say?
Alegria’s film is rich with atmosphere, beginning with its opening images of sickened fish washing up on a riverbank and taking their last desperate gasps. Later, a lone cow stands in a forest amid strands of moonlight and seems to stare directly into our souls. Swarms of bees take flight in formation as if sending a message from the gray skies above. And yes, a mournful song is woven throughout, hence the title. But “The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future” also requires great patience—it might be too slow of a slow burn—and there’s not much to her characters beyond a few barely sketched traits.
Maestro’s Magdalena emerges fully clothed and helmeted from the Cruces River and wanders the land, dripping wet, with the moody beats of a horror movie. We will learn that she died in a motorcycle crash that may or may not have been an accident. It’s a little unclear how she can interact with the living world; the rules constantly evolve. She can’t speak, but she can impact electronics, and people can see her, which is how she startles her widower husband, Pablo (Benjamin Soto). He’s understandably so shocked by the sight of his deceased wife, looking as beautiful as she did the day she died, that he winds up in the hospital.
This prompts his surgeon daughter, Cecilia (Leonor Varela), to travel there with her own children to help care for the family’s dairy farm. Cecilia’s emotional disconnect with her mother has trickled down to how she parents: She refuses to accept that her daughter is transgender, insisting on calling her teenager Tomás (Enzo Ferrada Rosati). But while we see her dressing in feminine clothes, makeup, and earrings, we never learn what name she’d prefer. Her younger daughter has even less characterization.
TV news stories inform us that a pulp factory near the family’s village is to blame for the sickness and bizarre behavior of animals inhabiting the area. They describe it as an “ecological disaster,” which inspires protests in the streets wherever Cecilia and her family go. This environmental damage is a central driving force in the screenplay from Alegria, Fernanda Urrejola, and Manuela Infante, but it also feels like an afterthought. At the same time, Magdalena’s reconnection with her family only sporadically achieves the catharsis it seeks. Blending these two stories in such a dreamlike fashion results in a half-baked whole.
Still, some standout scenes linger in the memory. Magdalena and the transgender teen—outsiders in this insular place, struggling to make their voices heard—enjoy a quiet moment of communion and understanding in an empty fishing boat. Magdalena once again enjoys the power of human touch in visceral and thrilling ways. And Maestro’s performance, in general, is an understated wonder. She conveys so much emotion—confusion, regret, joy, love—simply through her eyes, smile, tears, and body language. After exploring so much suffering, Alegria’s film ends up being unexpectedly hopeful.
Now playing in theaters.
Leonor Varela as Cecilia
Mía Maestro as Magdalena
Alfredo Castro as Enrique
Marcial Tagle as Bernardo
Luis Dubó as Victor
Enzo Ferrada as Tomás
María Velasquez as Felicia
Laura del Río as Alma
Benjamin Soto as Pablo