Five years after her lauded short “And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye” won Sundance’s short film jury award in international fiction, Chile’s Francisca Alegria is bowing her feature debut on Jan. 23 at the Park City, Utah, fest.
In “The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future,” Alegria continues to further expand the themes in her short. “I was exploring this in-between place, which exists beyond our physical senses. It’s where the subtle entities are, where our sensations live, where death appears,” she says. “I wanted to convey those spaces through the stories and themes that have been with me since childhood. I do feel that in the short film, these themes became more like symbols because I didn’t have time to develop and dig into the heart and bones of the matter.”
In the short, 85-year-old Emeteria is visited by the ghost of her patron on the same day that dozens of cows appear dead in a field. “The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future” begins in a similar vein but this time hundreds of fish appear dead by a poisoned river while a woman dressed in motorcycle gear emerges gasping from the river. It is Magdalena, played by Mia Maestro, who is long dead. Her widower husband (Alfredo Castro) sees her as she wanders around the village and collapses in shock, prompting his daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela) to return from the city, with her young daughter (Laura del Rio) and teen son Tomas (played by non-binary actor-singer Enzo Ferrada in his first film role) in tow.
Having spent most of her childhood years at her grandparents’ farm in Chile, Alegria points to an incident when she was about 10 that sparked her original idea. “I was playing with my sister and some friends at the stables when I spotted the skull of a cow high up on the roof.” After they managed to climb the steep roof, Alegria was looking into the eye socket of the skull when she heard a scream. Her sister and another friend had fallen off the roof. Thankfully they survived but the incident marked her. “Ten years later, I wrote a story about a boy who finds a cow skull that speaks to him about the approach of death.”
Another issue that haunts her is the massive deaths of animals, mainly caused by unscrupulous businesses. She shot her film in Valdivia, the region of the rivers, where in 2017, thousands of dead fish surfaced a few months after a pulp and paper factory began operation.
Cows play a key role in both her short and her feature. “They are such generous beings; in other cultures, they are sacred, but in ours, they are violated,” she says. “They have become the oppressed body of the feminine … used by industries to sell more, to satisfy human needs. We take everything from them: their milk, their meat. … We crave for their milk so much that we separate them from their babies, their calves, which is what I think hurt the cows the most,” she asserts.
“While writing this film, I began understanding motherhood in a more holistic way and the story became a sort of subconscious way to heal the bond with my mother and my female ancestors,” she says, pointing to Maya Deren’s experimental shorts “Meshes of the Afternoon” and “At Land” as key visual and thematic inspirations.
Comments Maestro: “Working with Francisca since we first met at the Sundance Institute was a four-year process and looking back I feel it was absolutely necessary in order to acquire the depth of the story and for me to breathe Magdalena from every pore of my body.
“Having almost no dialog, except through song, allowed me to open myself to a very unique and subtle sensorial world,” she adds.
“I’m extremely proud to have been part of this film. Francisca has a unique voice. It’s a shame that Sundance went online again, as it’s a truly immersive and sensory cinematic experience,” concurs Varela.