La vaca que cantó una canción hacia el futuro
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DIRECTED BY: Francisca Alegria
FEATURING: Leonor Varela, Mía Maestro, Alfredo Castro, Enzo Ferrada
PLOT: When her father is hospitalized from shock after her long-dead mother appears to him, Cecilia returns to her family’s dairy farm to care for him.
COMMENTS: Fans of cows singing songs will surely be satisfied with The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future; the bovines croon quite well, although it is up for debate just how far into the future their tunes echo. The rest of us will at least be willing to hear the movie out: it contains much intriguing strangeness, while also held back a bit by a tangled thicket of themes and the sometimes underwhelming familial drama.
The film begins with a shot of a mouse corpse that leads to a long pan over a forest floor to a riverbank where a carpet of beached fishes sing a song about death. This is followed by the appearance of Magdalena, who arises from the water wearing a motorcycle helmet and walks silently into town. We then turn our attention to Cecilia, a single mom doctor raising two children. We meet the elder, Tomás, trying on women’s clothes and discussing a vintage newspaper article about a woman who committed suicide by riding her motorcycle into the river. Cecilia rushes to her father’s side after he collapses from shock after catching a glimpse of what he believes to be his long-dead wife, looking just as she did the day she died. Cecilia and her children settle in at the family’s dairy farm, where her brother Bernardo attempts to revive the herd’s failing fortunes while the patriarch complains about his effort. Also on site is superstitious stepmom Felicia, the first to directly interact with silent revenant Magdalena, who gradually reveals herself to the others. Meanwhile, the cows get loose at night, while back in town people stage protests, blaming a local pulp plant’s pollution for the plague of dead fish.
I’ve tagged this movie as magical realism—it’s a rule that we must do so for any moderately strange movie hailing from south of the U.S. border—but at times, Cow feints towards actual surrealism. If Magdalena’s strange and unexplained return from the dead was the only thing going on here, Cow probably could be confined to the realm of magical realism; but the magic here extends beyond the realistic. There are, of course, the choirs of singing fish and cattle. There is Magdalena’s strange relationship with technology: she’s obsessed with cellphones and her mere presence turns on microwaves. A mysterious wound appears on Cecilia’s head, quickly healed and never explained. The zombie mom briefly takes up with a lesbian motorcycle gang. So, despite a primary focus on drama, things do get weird.
But The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future arguably attempts to deal with too many themes at once. The family dynamics are the primary focus, with the mystery of Magdalena’s death and return illuminating and catalyzing the interplay between the others. Ecological collapse forms the background: the deaths of fish, the disappearance of bee colonies, a sickness affecting the cattle herd. There’s a nod to issues of how conservative Latino societies deal with LGBTQ members, and even a critique of industrial dairy farming practices. But, although everything connects, to a large extent, spreading all of these concerns over the course of a 90 minute movie means that each one gets short shrift: we never uncover the source of the river’s pollution, Tomás’ transgenderism subplot feels imported from a different movie, etc. Furthermore, the big family secret is not weighty or surprising enough to justify its delayed reveal; it’s delivered in a single sentence. Still, Cow works out well in the end, generating an optimistic feeling of rejuvenation and resurrection. The postmortem resolution of Cecila and Magdalena’s relationship loosely parallels the notion that there is still time for us to atone for our sins against the environment.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Rife with evocative symbolism, Chilean director Francisca Alegria’s feature debut is an audacious, surrealistic expression of acute ecological distress and various ideas pertaining to contemporary agita.”–Kat Sachs, Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)