Director – Francisca Alegria – 2022 – Chile, France, US, Germany – Cert. 15 – 98m
A dead woman emerges resurrected from a polluted river to reconnect with her husband, children and grandchildren – out in UK cinemas on Friday, March 24th
The banks of a river cutting through a forest, strewn with dead fish. The sound of a strange song, a mournful chorale. Bubbles. A woman (Mia Maestro) rises from the water, dripping wet and clad in overalls and a helmet as if she’s been riding a motorcycle. She makes her way to the bank, collapses, coughs up water. She feels a joy in being, being back, being on land. She walks along a leaf-covered train track. She boards a bus, paying the driver not with the money for the fare but with a touch of her hand.
She doesn’t speak a word. The whole scenario doesn’t feel quite right. Is she real? Is she an apparition? She’s certainly unexpected in town, when her decades older husband Enrique (Alfredo Castro), collapses after seeing her from the inside of a shop window. Bernardo (Marcial Tagle) phones Cecilia (Leonor Varela) with the news that their father claims to have just seen their late mother, his wife Magdalene, which is, of course, impossible. They take him to the hospital for a check-up.
Cecilia already has enough to contend with. For one thing, something is up with the cows on the family’s dairy farm, which seem strangely agitated. For another, her eldest Tomás (Enzo Ferrada) is a teenager and trans, dressing effeminately and refusing her perhaps understandably intransigent label ‘son’. Their respective positions are entrenched, and it may well not be long before he leaves home for good. She also has a young daughter, Alma (Laura del Río).
As this bizarre fable unfolds further, Cecilia wanders around the woods at night, her torch picking out a cow. But all the cows are penned safely elsewhere, and there’s no way they could lose themselves in the woods, so the presence of this one here at this time is something of a conundrum. She sustains a wound on her forehead which is tended to by housemaid Felicia (María Velásquez).
Felicia is later the first person to see Magdalena hanging around the house and is rather less shocked by her apparition than was Magdalena’s husband, telling Magdalena, “they’re not quite ready to see you yet.” When she talks to Magdalena, perhaps it’s the need to hear the sound of her own voice, as if the wordless Magdalena is saying more just by being there than the verbose Felicia, however less dysfunctional the latter may appear than the living members of the family who employ her. The pair drink together.
As the title suggests, the cows here do indeed sing (although it’s oddly believable: this is not Disney anthropomorphism where animals mouth words like humans, but a much more otherworldly manifestation). “Death is coming, our end is near,” they sing, “so please let us die. We will return.”
Bees return to the family’s unprotected beehives after vanishing when the neighbours fumigated their next door property. Further scenarios include Cecilia slipping down into the depths of the river, air escaping her nostrils, and her mother likewise descending to rescue her, no sign of air whatsoever, as if she were so at one with the natural world that she can breathe water instead of air. At the close, just as Magdalene emerged as a primal force rising from water, so she walks away from the narrative across the sand of a desert towards the horizon.
The piece resembles a peculiar dream and is not always that easy to follow (not least because the mother died at a similar age to that which her daughter has now reached, and the two actresses cast look very much like one another). However, it clearly has its heart in the right place, delivering lashings of arthouse eco-sentiment at every opportunity.
Certain elements of the production take it a good part of the way towards realising its intentions: in particular the atmospheric, dreamlike cinematography by Inti Briones (who shot Song Without A Name, Melina León, 2019), and the beautifully understated, almost magical score by Pierre Desprats, which may well be the film’s strongest asset. An oddity, perhaps, but one worthy of your investigation.
The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 24th.