THE STORY – A long-dead woman comes back to life in a river full of dead fish and transforms the life of her dysfunctional family.
THE CAST – Mía Maestro, Leonor Varela, Alfredo Castro, Marcial Tagle, Enzo Ferrada & Laura Del Río Ríos
THE TEAM – Francisca Alegria (Director/Writer), Manuela Infante & Fernanda Urrejola (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
Something in the world is off. Animals are dying. Water levels are sinking, and the water is getting dirtier. A woman (Mia Maestro) has just risen out of a lake in an outfit that makes her look like an astronaut, complete with a helmet. Where has she come from? Is she supposed to be here? Where is here? That last question is simple enough to answer: This is more-or-less present-day Chile, and the woman, Magdalena, has been dead for several years. So many years, in fact, that her former husband is sent straight into shock at the sight of her, and daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela) must return to her father’s remote farm to help her brother take care of him with her two children in tow. But Magdalena is still around, a silent ghost of flesh and blood looking for something, and soon the farm’s cows start dying, too. The natural world is crying out for help, sometimes even in song.
This is the world of Francisca Alegria’s “The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future,” one of the year’s most original films so far. It’s a difficult film to describe – it is simultaneously a ghost story, a family drama, an ecological parable, a mystery, a coming-of-age story, and a musical. It adopts the philosophical tone and light touch of a fable. Still, the themes here – man’s destruction of the planet, how parental foibles get passed on to children, what “freedom” truly means – are far more complex than Aesop’s tales (and the imagery far more unsettling). This results in a film that feels wholly unique, the voice of a singular artist. Alegria’s directorial style is mostly patient and observational, often putting a microscope on the little moments and gestures that can grow into ruptures between family members. She’s not above grand artistic gestures, however, like when a chorus starts singing songs with the lyrics, “Death is coming, our end is here,” over a shot of dead and dying fish. The implication is that these poor creatures are acting as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the actions of the characters as it relates to their own plight. In Alegria’s hands, it’s incredibly effective, using the oddness of its overall effect to catch the audience off guard and force them to lean in and listen more closely.
The whole film feels designed that way, constantly catching us off guard with large and small oddities and turns of character and plot that go in ways that are often the opposite of what you might expect. The storyline of Magdalena’s oldest child, who goes by Tomàs, is heartstoppingly touching, thanks partly to Enzo Ferrada’s tremendously sensitive performance and partly to Alegria’s empathetic storytelling. The planet may be in poor health, but Alegria knows that the human heart is powerful and that by sharing hers with an audience, she can ensure that her message will stick with them. This is an incredibly open-hearted film for something so bleak, but that turns out to be the film’s secret weapon: In the end, it’s really a story about healing. The direct connection between the healing of familial bonds and the healing of our planet’s ecosystem is easy to grasp, even as its full extent feels tantalizingly just out of reach. It’sAlegria must walk a delicate line to make a film like this work, but her masterful control of tone proves to be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Much of the film is oblique, never fully spelling out its symbology or even exactly what is happening for long stretches. Alegria guides us with a firm yet gentle hand through it all, using the gentle tone of a bedtime story to smooth over everything. What could feel pretentious instead feels genuine; what could feel impenetrable instead feels approachable. “The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future” is a strange film, but it’s the kind of strange that pulls you in, not the kind that turns you off. The images, the score, and the performances are so alluring that it’s impossible to look away from them. Given its uniqueness, it’s also impossible to forget.