If a title like The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future doesn’t grab you, who knows what will. This surreal Chilean film completely delivers on the novelty of its name. Cows don’t sing much here, mind you, but there’s tragic moo-ing aplenty.
Francisca Alegría’s feature debut is a hypnotic tango of life and death. The film introduces audiences to the lush Chilean countryside with images that exude the foul stench of death. Fish float in the river, poisoned en masse by pollution. Amid the river saturated with death, air bubbles rise to the surface. So too does Magdalena (Mía Maestro) who died in that river long ago when her motorcycle crashed into the water.
Magdalena returns to her family dairy farm where her presence haunts and ultimately upends her family. Her daughter, Cecilia (Lenore Varela), is in a skittish, frazzled state. She worries about the family’s future and exudes little joy. Cecilia clashes with her eldest child (Enzo Ferrada), who was born Tómas but is undergoing a transition that Cecilia refuses to accept. Magdalena might be the ghost, but it’s hard to say who’s sleepwalking through life.
As Magdalena visits her family members one by one, she shakes their comfortable lives. However, her presence barely goes detected save for the smart eyes of her youngest granddaughter. Magdalena, see, sedately traipses around the village and home. She uses the shower for hours on ending, yet other people in the home simply assume it’s Tómas being naughty. The elder child, moreover, desperately yearns for their grandmother’s guidance.
Alegría unfolds The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future through a series of surreal encounters. Creatures intersect with the family’s fate and ultimately determine their future when Cecilia encounters a devastating sight: all the cows on the farm are dying. The cause is as murky as Magdalena’s need to return. However, as the dead woman roams the world she left behind, the film witnesses engaged young people like Tómas who are eager to fight for their futures. Ditto the flag waving bikers who bring the film to its stirring climax. Others, like Cecilia, are passively inert. They value the world and the creatures in it, whether children or livestock, only as they benefit them.
Lensed exquisitely by cinematographer Inti Briones, the images of Cow are truly hypnotic. A light touch of magical realism makes the odyssey a unique ghost story and environmental fable alike. Reminiscent of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in its enigmatic episodic-ness, The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future is ultimately a film that washes over and envelopes a viewer like the waters of the early frames. Magdalena’s return may simply be a cautionary tale to her surviving family to be better stewards of the earth. Moreover, the surrealism of the film evokes the cycles of waking days from dawn through dusk: everything returns and regenerates. Audiences looking for life’s answers won’t find them here, but Algería’s promising debut leaves many questions that linger. Marinate in the film as long as you can, strange as it may be.