The Cow Who Sang A Song Into the Future (Cert 15)

Theatrical (Distributor: Sovereign Films) Running Time: 98 minutes approx.

Release Date – March 24th

Bet you didn’t think cows could sing, did you? Well, if they can jump over the moon per the old nursery rhyme, I guess they can do anything. Maybe the cows don’t actually sing (per se) in this film but they are known for their prescience – when they lay down, this is an indicator of rain coming our way. Or perhaps they know something else we don’t…

In the middle of rural forest in Chile through which the polluted waters of the Cruces River run, the fish, bees, and the general environment are beginning to perish. A leather clad woman, Magdalena (Mía Maestro), surfaces from the river, confused and gasping for air. She staggers out onto the road where a bus takes her into town, her presence having an unusual effect on any electrical goods so comes near to.

Magdalena’s husband Enrique (Alfredo Castro) spots his supposedly dead wife and has a heart attack, prompting his doctor daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela) and her two children Tomas (Enzo Ferrada) and Alma (Laura del Rio) to come down to his dairy farm and look after him. Meanwhile, eldest son Bernado (Marcial Tagle) runs the farm which has been plagued with problems of late with their cows. Then Magdalena appears.

Having read the plot synopsis and been bewitched by the title, I wouldn’t blame you if this all sounds like a confused mess of a film, and after watching it, I am sure many will still feel the same way. The Cow Who Sang A Song Into the Future is the feature length debut from Chilean writer-director Francisca Alegria, and as the title suggests, comes from the artier, symbolism/allegory heavy school of filmmaking.

As unlikely as it may seem, Alegria does have something to say with this film, an almost mystical, whimsy driven entreaty for us to be good to the environment as well as each other. Bill & Ted imparted this same message with rock and roll and time travel, which was much more palatable to the masses, whilst Alegria courts a different audience, one that prefers subtlety and lyrically lustrous imagery to carry the narrative.

The film opens with the camera inspecting the contaminated waters, rotting fauna and barely surviving fish, as part of a haunting montage set to a plaintive eulogy implied as being sung by the moribund piscine. Then, the still waters of the river are disturbed by Magdalena’s arrival, as if she was ejected from the riverbed and out onto the surface, not looking a day older the when she drowned in an apparent suicide, explaining why Enrique suffered his heart attack.

Not saying a single word throughout, Magdalena is very real yet she drifts through every scene like an ethereal presence, more so for the family who thought she was dead. Her otherworldly presence is confirmed by the manic, disruptive effect she has on electronics and such; I took this as a sort of reverse Godzilla, as if the pollution revived her to do good rather than go on a rampage of destruction.

Why would this be if Magdalena’s resurrection would only cause torment for her family? It would appear that Magdalena’s agenda is the allegorical centre of the tale when we look at the constituent elements in need of repair. The plight of the animals is essentially the guilt trip aspect of the central message in asking us to clean up our act. Alegria doesn’t sugar coat this, shoving the camera right up close so we can see pleading in the cows’ eyes, in what is a remarkable performance for a group of bovines.

Spreading the problem net a little wider, the family is going to prove harder to reconcile – Enrique always blames Bernado for everything that’s going wrong, including Magdalena leaving them, whilst Cecilia is at odds with Tomas, who identifies as female and dresses like a girl but Cecilia won’t hear of it; younger sister Alma calls Tomas her sister. Almost if by design, Magdalena creeps into their lives and through a series of misadventures becomes a catalyst for reconciliation.

Cramming so many mini dramas into 98-minutes a tall order and it shows in this leap from short films to feature length for Alegria. The ideas are there and fully realised in concept but in execution, it is a case of drifting in and out of the scenarios then hitting the conclusion. It is possible the premise of equating Magdalena with mother nature and fixing her family disputes is akin to being kinder to the environment will be missed by some – if this is so, it can still be followed as a sort of benevolent ghost story.

Unlike other films with an ecological theme, Alegria is quite calm in her tone and delivery of the message. With no heavy didacticism, she also eschews having a main character on an environmental crusade to instigate change, instead using the aforementioned parallels of the estranged family to get her point across. A refreshing and bold approach, it posits Magdalena as the de facto protagonist in that she is not looking for revenge, until a last act revelation suggests she has every right to.

Even if the story baffles, the immersive and mesmeric cinematography from Inti Briones and bucolic, meditative texture will keep you enthralled, as will the delightfully measured performances of the cast. Mía Maestro doesn’t get to do that much as Magdalena yet is still able to be a commanding presence from the mystical aura she permeates. But as already opined the cows are somehow the show stealers here.

Occupying a similar metaphysical space to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee, the less arcane The Cow Who Sang A Song Into the Future offers an abstruse yet positive and forward thinking, folklorish ecological drama. An ambitious and on occasion overreaching debut for Alegria, it works as an entreaty on behalf of Mother Nature and mothers everywhere, asking us to try spreading kindness and love instead of abuse and division.


Rating – ***      

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