“The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future” is a poetic domestic drama with queer and ecological themes — as well as a supernatural twist.
The film, directed and co-written by Francisca Alegría, opens with a song with lyrics about “A river of the past/that was sweet and clear/now carries something withered/that confuses us…Is that death coming?… A drowned woman/Will come back soaked with life…” And so it happens. A drowned woman, Magdalena (Mía Maestro), soon emerges from the water, wearing a motorcycle helmet no less, and returns after a long absence — she died years ago, possibly by suicide; her body was never found.
Magdalena soon reveals she has magic powers, such as her ability to activate cell phone or microwaves just by being near them. But when her husband, Enrique (Alfredo Castro), sees her outside an electronics store, he is so shocked that she returned from the dead that he ends up in the hospital. This prompts their son Bernardo (Marcial Tagle) to call his sister Cecilia (Leonor Varela), a doctor, who arrives with her son Tomás (Enzo Ferrada Rosati), who is transitioning to female, and her young daughter Alma (Laura del Rio).
“The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future” is a narrative of return as Magdalena’s reappearance forces this dysfunctional family to confront their truths. Enrique is critical of how Bernardo is managing the family’s dairy farm. Likewise, Cecilia is disapproving of Tomás wanting to be a woman. Tomás asks Cecilia, “Why can’t you see me for who I am?” When she responds, “Sorry, but while you live with me, you’ll be my son,” it is disheartening. In contrast, when he dresses as a woman to go out one night, he is pleased to find that Bernardo is encouraging.
Cecilia’s issue of Tomás’s gender is juxtaposed with a narrative thread involving ecological disruption. The bees on the family’s farm have all gone away, and the river may be polluted as fish are dying in large quantities. There are protests being waged against a local pulp factory that may be responsible. Making matters worse, there is something making the cows sick. It is, as the song that introduces the film suggests, all wrapped up in the past?
Director/co-writer Francisca Alegría obliquely answers the questions she raises as she creates more atmosphere than drama. Cecilia senses there is something happening, but she cannot quite explain it. That may be true of the film as well. Alegría’s lyrical story unfolds at a snail’s pace, with several characters seen to be having “thoughtful” moments. There are some haunting images of dead fish and sick cows, but there are also marvelous shots of Cecilia or Magdalena, barely illuminated, and surrounded by darkness, that have an impressive painterly quality to them. Likewise, an upside-down image, reflected in water, is also gorgeous, as are scenes of bees swarming. If the film is not narratively satisfying, it does look great.
Tomás’ storyline is sensitively handled as he goes out one night (in a fabulous, colorful furry coat), and unexpectedly meets Magdalena, whom he has long felt a connection with even after she passed away. They have an emotional moment together when Tomás confesses a dream to her, “You took me to another planet, where people understood each other without words,” which speaks to his longing for acceptance. Tomás also asks her about what death is like, and why she returned.
“The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future” is best in these moments because the characters, who are underwritten, reveal themselves. Cecilia’s anger — towards Tomás in particular, as well as her family in general — may stem from unresolved issues with her mother. Enrique’s disappointment with Bernardo may also be a result of Magdalena’s untimely death. Alegría lets viewers draw their own connections. The ecological themes of the film are also unresolved as no one quite knows what is causing all the sickness and death.
Mia Maestro is captivating as she rocks her otherworldly persona. Watching her eating and drinking everything she can when he first returns home is amusing. But as Magdalena floats through the film, reconnecting with others — including a motorcycle gang in one inexplicable scene — Maestro exacts a magnetic pull on viewers. So too, does Enzo Ferrada Rosati as Tomás. Their unapologetically queer character is appealing throughout the film.
“The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future” is an interesting blend of magical realism and social realism. The messages may be obfuscated but they are also intriguing and heartfelt.
“The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future” | Directed by Francisca Alegría | Opening May 19 at the Quad. Distributed by Kino Lorber