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Herd Ingenuity

Inti Briones/Sundance Institute

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future (2022)

The natural world rebels under the negligent care of humans in Francisca Alegria's "The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future," a low-key magic realist drama of bereavement and renewal set around and eventually under the waters of Chile's Cruces River. Several anxieties mingle in the plot, although the tone is languid and contemplative and the soundtrack occupied by roughly as much silence as dialogue. But cows do sing and a corpse does walk, in a film whose air of mildly mystic evocation comes from artistic restraint, poetic intent, and perhaps Covid-19 inconvenience.

A bit less restraint might have raised the film's pulse, and even at 98 minutes the film's spell threatens to run out of juice, built from whatever scenes were available to be shot. But this is the occupational hazard of art under early Covid, along with sparsely populated urban streets and a sense of isolation that the film turns to initial advantage. It starts when Magdalena (Mía Maestro) rises from the river, dressed incongruously in motorcycle helmet and leather jacket; it transpires she was a suicide, and rode her bike into the water tied to it with ropes. The revenant remains mute, although when her grandson Tomàs (Enzo Ferrada) encounters her, she does communicate via the synthesized speaking voice of his iPhone. Magdalena observes her living family while their dairy farm crumbles under both financial pressure and the decay of the natural world, depleted wildlife and polluted water seeming to be the start of some wholesale collapse.

The film's Cruces River is being polluted by a pulp mill, and the real Chilean river was damaged by the same industry two decades ago, so Ms. Alegria is putting real-world parallels into her fable. They sit alongside a family dynamic that you might call an indie-film staple, based on Tomàs's homosexuality and the general unhappiness of his mother Cecilia (Leonor Varela), as the film links the stresses of the material world and the animist spirits of the land. Ms. Maestro and Ms. Varela speak little while saying plenty, owners of two great South American faces that Hollywood has never really known what to do with but which Ms. Alegria clearly understands very well.


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