Review: ‘The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future’ carries an eerily optimistic tune

Leonor Varela in the movie "The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future."
(Kino Lorber)

Scores of moribund fish constitute a mournful choir in the opening sequence of the eerie environmentalist fable “The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future.” Gasping for air ashore a poisoned river, they accept their imminent death but not without offering a word of hope for a better tomorrow. Later, as the title implies, other fauna will join in their urgent chant.

With finely tuned magical realist sensibilities, first-time writer-director Francisca Alegria launches into a hauntingly atmospheric tale that denounces humanity’s untenable relationship with the natural world. Those abiding by an arrogant and exploitative understanding of our place on Earth, the film suggests, fail to listen to the creatures with whom we share this planet. In dismissing their concerns, they threaten their own existence.

From the depths of the Cruces River in central Chile, Magdalena (Argentine star Mía Maestro), a free-spirited and motorcycle-loving woman who died by suicide decades in the past, resurrects as an otherworldly force. Unable to verbalize her thoughts, but with her body untarnished and ageless, a disruptive electrical current makes her presence known.

Film critic Justin Chang and culture critic Mary McNamara sat down to discuss their favorites as the 76th Cannes Film Festival draws to a close.


Meanwhile, Magdalena’s rigid daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela), an accomplished surgeon unaccepting of her transgender daughter’s identity, returns to the family’s dairy farm to look after her father, played by acclaimed actor Alfredo Castro (“From Afar”). One by one, the members of this clan come into contact with Magdalena. Inevitably, the shock of her return from the afterlife stirs up unresolved trauma surrounding her untimely death.

Alegria, with co-writers Manuela Infante and Fernanda Urrejola, confines “The Cow” to a liminal space of grounded fantasy where the unexplainable manifests itself physically, and not as dreamscapes nor intangible visions. Magdalena reenters this plane of reality to set in motion the winds of change for her loved ones, but also as a loving prophet for the birds, the bees, and other life forms. Consisting entirely of facial expressions, Maestro’s soulful performance oscillates between a serene demeanor and the ecstasy of bodily pleasure.

Scenes in the forest at night feel the most supernatural, in large part due to cinematographer Inti Briones’ beguiling lighting choices. One of those evenings, Cecilia encounters the transporting melody of the cows that belong to Magdalena’s brute husband. Separated from their calves to produce milk, they intone musical verses about their motherly desperation. Their message isn’t a warning but a foreboding prediction.

To maintain the movie’s enigmatic air, Alegria’s talking animals don’t sing in a simplistic anthropomorphic manner — their lips don’t mouth words. Instead, their collective voices permeate the atmosphere as if moving through the wind. The effect is nearly hypnotizing, not so much because of what they are saying, but given the mystical quality of their song.

But rather than delivering a pessimistic end-of-times eulogy, “The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future” shows a sanguine trust in younger generations, who might fight for the river, for all abused sentient beings, and for the freedom to be their true selves. Alegria sees no difference in causality between the familial conflicts and those that relate to nature, at their root they are both the consequence of a desire to control what should just be.

The solution, the filmmaker argues, is a spiritual communion with the unknown, because there’s healing in surrendering to one’s perfect insignificance as part of something bigger.

‘The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future’

In Spanish with English subtitles

Not Rated

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angees; Laemmle Glendale