Francisca Alegria’s The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future is unlike any other experience offered by Sundance ’22: a deeply moving onscreen poem of unshakeable, dreadful beauty. In collaboration with lead actors Mia Maestro and Leonor Varela, Chilean writer/director Alegria paints a visually rich, emotionally layered fable about motherhood—where two troubled humans symbolize Mother Earth and the threats posed by our species. Adapted from Alegria’s award-winning short from Sundance ’17, The Cow premiered in this year’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition. A stunning first feature, it’s both an urgent call to action and a study in contrasts. Reality vs. magic, death vs. life, industry vs. nature, selfishness vs. empathy—and, most distressing of all, daughter vs. mother.
The film begins with an indelible image, both chilling and comical: a woman in a motorcycle helmet, rising from the depths of a polluted river. The riverbanks brim with dead fish; the score is a chanted lament that could have been sung by nature itself. The woman is Magdalena (Mia Maestro). Years ago, she committed suicide in this very river—and now she’s back, more goddess than ghoul, with a message for her daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela). Therein lies the contrast: while Maestro—truly living up to her name—replaces dialogue with visceral physicality and subtle vulnerability, Varela speaks urgently, cynically. Like the characters in Ikiru or Living, she is spiritually bereft, in need of a death sentence to remind her what matters.
Both Magdalena and Cecilia are lost souls, addressing each other with warnings meant for us. Told entirely through lush imagery and subtle exchanges—yet never overwrought—their story is more sermon than narrative: morally challenging, spiritually inspiring, potentially life-changing … if only we can open ourselves to its much-needed poetry.
I sat down (virtually) to interview all three of the artists involved — Alegria, Varela and Maestro— about how their collaboration bore such powerful fruit. Their surprising insights on folkloric realism, film as metaphor and the “sacred feminine” are linked below.