In most movies, nature is portrayed as a still image, a landscape painting shown twenty-four times per second whose every detail is within God’s design. Francisca Alegría’s debut feature, The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future, captures, rather than its “majesty,” some of its genuine strangeness. Water ripples here aren’t beautiful and musical like in Disney’s Fantasia, where they are left by fairies skimming the water; instead, they are almost violent: reflections of an ongoing or still lingering turbulence.
And so here, when a whole river of fish suddenly die, even though some are seen washed up amongst a couple of cans and bottles, the event doesn’t seem entirely man-made, but likewise an extension of nature’s chaotic, inexplicable transformations. When this actually occurred in the same part of Southern Chile that The Cow Who Sang is set in, there was no explanation why — “No one understands anything,” one mystically-inclined character states. Given this context, it isn’t so inconceivable when, from death, a woman returns.
Magdalena (Mia Maestro) isn’t able to talk, though she seems to possess both a childlike incognizance and a sharp lucidity. As she drifts back to her family, she doesn’t cause the kind of dramatic change that, say, Terence Stamp’s mysterious visitor does in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, even though she should have a more direct and personal effect on them. Her husband (Alfredo Castro) tries to grab hold of her, while her daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela), who saw her commit suicide, pushes her away; the slow collapse of the family continues onward.
Magdalena finds a much deeper connection with her transgender granddaughter (Enzo Ferrada), whose gender identity Cecilia rejects as a mere transition through a phase. At first, Magdalena only borrows her granddaughter’s clothes after her own have been soiled by water and mud, but later they meet in person and she manages to manipulate the electronics of a phone to talk to her. Both are caught in between identities: Magdalena in a strange, supernatural borderland, and her granddaughter in the early stages of transition, her hair in that frustrating, awkward stage of just starting to grow out. Adding to this sense of impermanent space is the fact that we never even learn her chosen name, though it’s highly unlikely that she wouldn’t have one at this point. (Upsettingly, she is credited only as “Tomás.”)
That all these ideas about transformation, death, nature, and more don’t come together in a coherent structure of meaning is actually to the film’s credit: it takes seriously the liminality it portrays. When the animals sing of death, predicting their own — and perhaps a wider geological — collapse, their lips move but never quite sync up. What makes the film’s texture so engaging and enveloping is that the constant threat of coherence, which could so undo the complexity of Alegría’s approach, never arrives.
Until it does. The Cow Who Sang’s ending underlines the connection between grandmother and granddaughter in a way that retains some mystery, but which delivers far too strong a resolution, a tidy reconciliation that reveals Cecilia as the movie’s true center. Approaching transness through this magical realist lens has much more to do with how strange and incomprehensible it seems to Cecilia than the lived experience of the character who is actually going through it. This might very well be honest to Algería’s perspective, as someone who isn’t trans, but she would have done well to expand this vision in a way more fully befitting the film’s numerous merits by, for example, casting a transgender actress, which would have afforded space for other perspectives. In the presence of these limiting factors, however, The Cow Who Sang ultimately resolves as a less curious film than most of its runtime suggests.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 20.