From the moment a long-deceased mother rises up from the waters of a polluted river as a smattering of fish sing a haunting chorus from their own death beds, writer/director Francisca Alegría‘s debut feature film The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future straddles a world both fantastical and heartbreakingly real. This stunning cinematic escapade, which was shot in Chile, is a story of ecological damage, uncovered secrets and overdue reconciliation, developing personal identity and strengthening familial bonds. The film marks a milestone in Alegría’s unique Sundance success story. Prior to the premiere in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Alegría was a fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Labs and before that, her short And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye won the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s Short Film Jury Award.
This year at Sundance, magical realism, folklore and elements of the fantastical ran through many of the critically acclaimed and cherished features. Alegría’s integration of a magical touch was unlike any other, and when asked about why she was drawn to it, her answer explained much more about her intention as a writer. “Although I have been influenced by the magical realism literary genre, I don’t see my film as ‘proper’ magical realism,” she tells us. “I think this film oscillates closer to the fantastic realm and because it brings Chilean idiosyncrasy into its DNA, it is considered a magical realist tale.”
“I still don’t know what genre to call it, but what I do know is that the magical events just came naturally,” she continues. “I never thought of them as a [storytelling] vehicle, but looking back I realize that I needed a fantastical way to portray certain things that I could not explain otherwise. That’s the blessing of images, symbols and music; they can tell us things we cannot say with proper words.”
Some of the film’s most indelible elements of magical identity are Greek chorus-like scenes of songs paired with visuals of animals, like the aforementioned opening with dead fish. Alegría says the process behind this was quite an evolution. “In the beginning,” she says, “the songs were very cryptic and didn’t come from the animal characters’ needs.” One song—which accompanies imagery of birds—was also not in the script at all. It was born in the edit room and unified ideas from friends who had seen a rough cut, with work by the two editors, Andrea Chignoli and Carlos Ruiz-Tagle, along with contributions from composer Pierre Desprats.
From a structural position, these dark and dire singing animal scenes act as chapter dividers in the script and foreshadow what’s to come. “There was a sort of philosophical standpoint of not to try to ‘give voice’ to these animals,” Alegría says. “We, the authors, are not ones to ‘give voices’ to them, we are just trying to create an interpretation of what we as humans could grasp.” As such, death fuses the lyrics together, and each song expresses fear over the eroding conditions of the world in a way that an animal would hope a human could understand.
As a counterpoint to this anthropomorphism and the mystical return from the dead, a gender-nonconforming family member, named Tomás, anchors the script in the reality of present day. “Tomás was based on myself,” Alegría says. “There are dialogues I took from my own experience and at the time I started writing her part, I was going through the same need of acceptance by my mother. I wanted my mother to see that love between same sex was real, and I wanted her to love me, ‘even if I was queer.'”
“The character evolved a lot,” Alegría continues, “and we got very inspired by a friend who was generous enough to share her reality as well.” In translating these struggles, Alegría lends authenticity and gravity to a film that could lose itself solely to fantasy. Instead, viewers understand that the stakes of the film are the same as in our world.
Sundance equipped Alegría to make the film and acts as the first platform for people to experience her feature debut. For filmmakers who dream of participating in the festival or any of its labs, Alegría advises that they be as genuine as they can be in their storytelling efforts. “Tell the stories that come from your gut and your passion,” she says. “Be always hopeful because it spreads, and we all need hope to create change.” The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future provides such hope. It’s a beguiling film that audiences will benefit from experiencing.
Hero image of Leonor Varela as Cecilia in Francisca Alegría’s The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future, photo by Inti Briones