My favorite film from Sundance 2022 is finally opening in US theaters. “The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future.” By turns mournful and jubilant, this magical drama follows a family coming to grips with a fantastic turn of events: the mother, Magdalena (Mia Maestro), comes back from the dead, rising from the waters of the polluted river where she drowned decades ago. A mournful chorus of fish sing of imminent apocalypse. While the news reports an environmental disaster and protestors take the streets, Magdalena haunts the family state confronting the people she loves with uncomfortable truths.
We spoke with director and co-writer Francisca Alegría from her native Chile, where she is working on her follow-up projects.
Popflick: Francisca, this is your first feature film after four shorts. What was the most difficult adjustment for you?
Francisca Alegría: It was difficult to consider the changes in how much time it takes characters to go through their psychological and emotional processes. Things don’t happen in one big dramatic scene. They move slowly and reveal themselves gradually. Many scenes are virtually silent, or nothing much seems to happen, but they build up, and help the audience to understand what is actually a very intense process. I had to learn how to give those scenes their time. They are just as important as the big dramatic scenes.
Things that make you go "Mooo": cows and fish sing funeral dirges in The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future / Photo by Inti Briones, courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Popflick: What’s the relationship between this movie and your short “... And The Whole World Fit in the Dead Cow's Eye” (2016)? Was it a rehearsal for ideas?
Francisca Alegría: The idea for the feature film script came first, actually! I had to do the short first because it was my university thesis, but I like to think both take place in the same universe, in the countryside where my grandparents lived. I spent a lot of my childhood there, and my fondest memories come from those fields and the animals there. Both movies connect with my childhood and maturation. There is also the mystical, superstitious element, with the dead back to life. That comes from my childhood, from the stories I heard from my relatives, friends, and neighbors. I needed to speak about that in both projects.
Popflick: Your concern about environmental issues comes from this familial space?
Francisca Alegría: It came naturally to me as a child. And now, as an adult, my inner world took over these two projects and used them to call attention to these issues happening in our countries and around the world. It opened up my focus, further than the personal, to call attention to this danger we should be alert on.
A dead river springs a lsot woman to life: Maestro floats in family secrets in The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future. / Photo by Inti Briones, courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Popflick: Your movie dwells on magical realism, which is a very Latin American idiom. Were you concerned about balancing fantastical elements with a discernible, concrete reality?
Francisca Alegría: It was not a concern. Actually, I think we, as Latin Americans, are not thinking much about whether the movie belongs to magic realism. If anything, it’s sci-fi or fantasy. But there was a challenge in finding cohesion. I gave myself a lot of licenses to go further than realism if we want to name it as such.
Popflick: You use animals as a sort of Greek chorus. I’m somewhat cynical, but as I saw the way you did it, it just won me over. Were you ever tempted to take a photo-realistic route, like in “Babe” (Chris Noonan, 1995)?
Francisca Alegría: I did not. I don’t think animals need us to manipulate them in such a way. I never intended to hire people in Asia to do CGI lip-synching. You have no guarantee that such a thing would work, either. The movie invites you to take your time, sink into this world, and use your imagination to fill in the blanks. The songs are for the animals to sing, and you fit the puzzle pieces in your mind. I love that you are a cynic and enjoyed the movie because it’s not a movie for cynics!
Popflick: Your leads, Leonor Varela and Mia Maestro have long careers in the United States. Was that a factor in casting them?
Francisca Alegría: It was more of a chemistry thing. We met in the Sundance Labs to practice some scenes. I did not know them in person, but I knew of Leonor Varela since she is Chilean, like me. We met at Sundance and established a very strong bond. It was only an exploratory exercise, but they gave themselves to the character during those weeks. When the lab was over, I proposed to make this movie together. And they said yes!
Through the mirror, darkly: Leonor Varela faces the uncanny in The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future / Photo by Inti Briones, courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Popflick: Magdalena, the woman that comes back from the dead, is essentially mute throughout the whole film. That must have been very challenging for Mia Maestro.
Francisca Alegría: It was very hard! In some early versions of the script, she did talk, but as we worked it over, we realized she did not need words to engage in this trip she needed to do with her family, her surroundings, and herself. I must say the whole merit should go to Mia. She worked the character and said so much without uttering a word. But you do hear her voice at a crucial moment. The singing voice of the main cow belongs to her. That’s Mia singing!
Popflick: Leonor Varela’s character, Cecilia, is a doctor, a woman of science. Yet, she has to face this supernatural phenomenon, her mother resurrecting. Should we believe in magic and science at the same time?
Francisca Alegría: I don’t believe in obligations, but we can believe in both things. I’m one of those people who believe in the intangible, in mystery, in events we can’t explain in a rational way. I believe in both science and irrational things. I’m not afraid to join these two things, both sides of my brain, two genders in your hand. Cecilia goes through this process of joining two opposite poles. She goes through a journey, from this hard, science-ruled place to the other side, without losing herself.
Popflick: One would think being a scientist, she would be more supportive of her trans daughter, whom she insists on calling her “Tomas”. These are the contradictions that make her human.
Francisca Alegría: Some people from older generations can say they are politically correct, repeat the proper discourse, and say they are accepting of differences, but things change when they get a Queer son or daughter. My family history inspired that angle. It comes from the relationship between me and my mother. I’m not trans, I’m queer, but it was hard for her to accept my sexuality. The character of Tomas allows me to present the perspective that it does not matter if a person feels male or female if they like men or women. This is just me, a person. That’s what we wanted to show.
Popflick: What does your mother say now? Has she been able to see the movie?
Francisca Alegría: She was one of the first people to see it. I was a little scared because I thought it would be difficult for her. It might seem harsh on her. But she found it beautiful. Also, pushing an indie film forward takes so much time! It took about ten years from script to premiere. Over that time, relationships can evolve and change. Another person who saw it said “This is like an ode to your mother.” And yes, she did a 180-degree turn in the meantime. Cecilia and Tomas achieve an understanding. There is redemption for these rigid characters. So, yes, my mother liked it a lot. But then again, this is very subjective. She is my mother! She likes everything I do. I crush a paper sheet, and she loves how it comes out!
Fighting the good fight: Enzo Ferrada asserts trans identity in The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future / Photo by Inti Briones, courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Popflick: Without spoiling anything, the final act suggests that personal trauma, and the violence we inflict on the planet, can be reversed. Isn’t that the most fantastical element in the movie? Can we heal the damage we’ve done?
Francisca Alegría: I think the keyword is “heal.” I like that word. I don’t think we can reverse trauma. Once you get it, it’s always there. You can work on analyzing, accepting, and transcending it a bit, but we carry our traumas forever. What I think we can do, is to heal or reach a state where we can communicate in a different way. We can see things from a different place. I feel we must be open to new possibilities and shed guilt. There are days when I love humanity and others when I think we are the worst thing on the planet. But I hold on to this great possibility.
Popflick: In the last decade, Chilean cinema gained a lot of international exposure in the US and Europe. Why do you think this is happening now?
Francisca Alegría: There are many factors at play. More markets have opened, so now there is a chance to show a national cinema that has always been good. Audiences are more open to indie films from beyond their borders. And in Chile, we are still living in a post-dictatorship stage. Art and film schools that were closed for many years reopened. There is a strong need to tell our stories because, for so many years, we could not do it. The brothers Larraín (Note: director Pablo and producer Juan de Dios) paved a road; there are other directors, like Sebastian Lelio (2016 Foreign Film Academy Award Winner for “A Fantastic Woman”) - and Marialy Rivas, who also premiered her first feature film at Sundance (“Young and Wild,” 2012 winner of Best Screenplay Award at Sundance)…people are not afraid to tell their stories now. I’m glad this is happening. I’m in Chile now, and there is so much talent around, so many distinct voices.
Lend a hand to those in need: a bus-driver helps out Mia Maestro in The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future / Photo by Inti Briones, courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Popflick: What is your next movie about?
Francisca Alegría: I can’t really tell!
Popflick: I hope it doesn’t take ten years!
Francisca Alegría: It won’t! There are three projects floating around, but the closest thing is a TV series based on Isabel Allende’s novel “The House of the Spirits,” I’m working on the script with “The Cow…” co-writer Fernanda Urrejola. We are developing it with Filmnation.
Francisca Alegría: I’m always tempted to explore new territories. And I love how every movie takes you to unexpected places. I love adventure, so yes, I’m open to the possibility.
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