The Spool / Movies
The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future is a lovely, confident first feature
Francisca Alegria directs a fascinating magical realist drama about a ghost who returns to offer guidance to her struggling family.
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Francisca Alegria directs a fascinating magical realist drama about a ghost who returns to offer guidance to her struggling family.

Cecilia (Leonor Varela) is in a bad way. She’s been twisted by years of neglect and disappointment into a coil of razor wire. She’s short with her co-workers and her children, especially queer Tomas (Enzo Ferrada Rosati), whose gender identity is taken as a personal slight. Her brother Bernardo (Marcial Tagle) is so used to her undermining him that he preempts their first meeting with an admission of his weight gain and a refusal to embrace her like a hit dog.

She’s got more on her plate than usual this week. Her father (Alfredo Castro) is in very poor health after a heart attack, which means his dairy farm will need new management in a hurry. And then there’s her mother, Magdalena (the ever-radiant Mía Maestro). Magadalena wasn’t around much when Cecilia and Bernardo were young, and killed herself (possibly by accident) decades ago by driving her motorcycle into a river. Well, she’s just resurfaced, looking just as she did when she slipped under the current, and she’s coming home to have a word with her tightly wound offspring.

The title of the Chilean magical realist drama La vaca que cantó una canción hacia el futuro translates to The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future, and translation seems to have been on the mind of Sundance-feted first-time feature director Francisca Alegria, taking strands and ideas from her early short work and putting them into new context in a 98 minute movie. The film uses the presence of a ghost as a mirror held up to a family grown bitter in the absence of clarity and love.

Attempts to communicate individually with Magdalena disarm each member of the family, and her touch seems to set off in them the melting of memories and ideas put on ice for fear that openness will make them appear weak. Ceclia’s judgement, her father Enrique’s guilt, Tomas’ transmutation of his mother’s loathing into a burgeoning self-loathing, Bernardo’s inferiority complex; each of these things stops being abstract and becomes concrete in the wake of an encounter with Magdalena’s ghost, who, the movie coyly suggests, may never actually have arrived, but rather become visible to people who needed a miracle in order to undo years of emotional damage.

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future
The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future (Kino Lorber)

Magdalena’s presence is thus a sort of Rorschach blot, for the characters and for us. She arrives in a river that is poisoning its inhabitants, from the fish flopping (and singing?) on its banks having grown sluggish drinking its poisoned water, to the cows who begin to die en masse when they’re detoured to there after a well runs dry. Protests over the pollution of the river are in the margins of the film, but it’s difficult not to notice that it’s Magdalena’s one-time motorcycle-riding cohort who are behind it. Losses are easily blamed on macro problems, which makes them easy to diagnose but difficult to solve. Hence the need for supernatural intervention. Magdalena’s presence seems to solve crises like the sickly cows and a dying bee population (long one of the earliest signs of global climate change’s deleterious effect on a given ecosystem). It’s a little too literal for a movie this small in scale, but the point is made clearly enough that a closing moment of environmental catharsis can be excused. To flirt with the divine and refuse a miracle would be something like bad manners.

Minor quibbles lie in plain sight, from lenses that render some scenes too wide and distant without becoming richer landscape studies and others in a middle ground between claustrophobic and not intimate enough to a hasty conclusion that bowties decades of trauma, but they’re easily forgiven. The joy of the film is in its narrative flow. La Vaca seems like it’s been adapted from a work by Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende and has purely literary devices that nevertheless work wonderfully on screen; no mean feat. The sudden revelation that Magdalena has been sending messages to Bernardo in the form of her earthly possessions, including the motorcycle she rode to her death and that he’s been fixing it up and it’s almost ready to be ridden, has the kind of hindsight momentum that works so beautifully on the page because a writer needn’t bother themself with the how’s and why’s of such a situation. We learn it as Cecilia does and can be shocked or choose to read it as part of the churning inner lives of every person and thing in the novel.

Things happen because they must, because absurdity has taken hold of this corner of the world. The sudden deaths of dozens of cows, the unseen appearance of Magdalena in her husband’s house as she eludes everyone long enough to take a shower and steal food from the kitchen; it is easy to picture the paragraphs of description that would account for these things in the phantom book on which this movie might have been based. Mia Maestro’s otherworldly presence helps sell the warmth of a visitor from beyond watching over her loved ones while also never losing the possibility that a ghost’s visit might not something to be celebrated. She’s been an underrated actress her whole career and it’s lovely to see her get to sink her teeth into a role that requires all of her instincts as a psychical performer.

It is a tricky thing to capture the feeling of possibility that comes with reading a novel like Chronicle of a Death Foretold or Beloved, where the unbelievable and shockingly literal mingle like party guests, where horror and wonder stem from the same cosmic disorder. Francisca Alegria may occasionally showcase her novitiate footing but her confidence as a storyteller is stunning. Too few directors think in paragraphs and still produce something cinematic. She appears ready to join their ranks.

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future opens in limited theatrical release May 19th.

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future Trailer: