Evocatively titled films that flirt with magical realism and ecology are the calling card of Chilean director Francisca Alegría. Her short “And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye” played dozens of film festivals, including Telluride and New York Film Festival, and won the International Short Fiction Film Jury Award at Sundance in 2017. Five years later, her feature film debut, “The Cow Who Sang A Song Into the Future,” premiered as part of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival to unanimous praise.
An ecological fable partially inspired by man-made pollution which resulted in the death of thousands of fish and swans near the Region of the Rivers in Chile, Alegría’s film, co-written by Manuela Infante and Fernanda Urrejola, weaves a tale of death and rebirth, of destruction and renewal. Using this ecological disaster as a launching pad, Alegría explores the fragility and strength of ecosystems in nature and the family at the film’s center.
As fish sing a song of their deaths, the long-presumed dead family matriarch Magdalena (an ethereal Mia Maestro) emerges from the poisoned waters. Her sudden resurrection causes her widowed husband Enrique (Alfredo Castro) to have an episode and draws her tightly wound daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela) back to the family dairy farm with her two children in tow. As Cecilia allows the mysteries of the natural world to envelop her, she begins to feel a deeper connection to the mother she felt abandoned her so many years ago.
This profound connection between family and nature is intrinsic to the Chilean filmmaker, who first picked up a camera during summer trips to the Andes mountains with her family. Although she eventually earned an M.F.A. in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University and lives a metropolitan life, the freedom she found in the mountains during her youth has never really left her.
For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke to Alegría over Zoom about peeking behind nature’s veil, her obsession with bugs, the influential dreamlike cinema of David Lynch and Maya Deren, and the mystical interconnectivity between all things.
You spent a lot of time in the Andes in your youth. How has that inspired your filmmaking?
I love mountains. I’m 37 now, and I look back at my childhood and teenage years, and I feel just so lucky to have had my grandfather and my grandmother as well and that opportunity. Nowadays, it is harder and harder to live like that.
I feel the same way. I grew up near the mountains, and I went to the forest a lot as a kid and hadn’t really been home for a long time until about a month ago, and just being near all those trees and everything. It’s very different. It brings up a lot of feelings and a lot of really evocative memories. How do you feel your time in nature is reflected in your films?
I think it came just like these two forces at the same time because it was in those mountains where I spent time with my sister and two cousins that I brought my first camera and recorded my first videos. So it was in that scenario where I started. I didn’t think about it at the time. I never thought I would be a director. I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that I liked being behind the camera and telling my sister and cousins what to do. And just like not even thinking about the backdrop of this majestic place, these mountains or that river, or even the indigenous prints on rocks. I look back, and I’m like, wow, now people pay just to be in those places.
There’s a rich archaeological history in Chile and a long history of art made in that region.
Yeah. And it’s just there. And it was there for us to investigate and see, and no one else was there. My grandpa knew a little spot, and it was just us for days at a time. I don’t remember because time and space … the more time passes, the more blurry it gets. But all those days, we were just us, so I think that’s how the integration of nature in my way of seeing the world or in the way I want to portray the world just came with that package. Luckily, it was all presented to me in a very natural way. It was just our summers.
You mentioned the river just now, and this film was made in the Region of the Rivers, and more specifically, the River Cruces. What drew you to that area for this specific story?
I was very attached to the zone where my grandparents lived for many years, so I felt I needed to move away from that a little bit. Because I felt safe. I shot in my grandparents’ house, or my uncle’s when I was doing short films. So for this one, I wanted to explore another kind of landscape that we don’t have in the central zone of Chile. So rain forests or forests. I’ve always been attracted to forests. And that area, which is, as you said, called the Region of the Rivers, could not be more perfect because it has this flow, and I thought the water element should be very present. That’s how I was thinking. Plus, in that region, we were reading a lot of news about massive deaths of fish, also of swans in that same river. A lot of pollution was going on in that beautiful area. It also has a large cow industry. So everything was there, really. The audiovisual industry, or the film industry, is very centered in Chile; everything happens in Santiago, in the capital. But that region, Valdivia, has a growing industry. A lot of young people are there. So it felt like it had all the right kinds of factors to do it down there.
When you spoke of cows earlier, I couldn’t help but think of your short film “And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye.”
[laughs] No one should learn that full title.
I remember seeing that when it was on FilmStruck and thinking, Oh my god, what is this movie? I need to see it from the title alone. Both of your films look at cows and what cows can represent in the way we use them, as you said, like an industry and as a product almost. Even though they are animals and they have their lives. I grew up in a ranching community, so cows were definitely a big part of my childhood, and I became a vegetarian, frankly, because I did not like the way cows were treated.
Growing up and spending a lot of time at my grandparents’ farmhouse, cows were treated like second-grade citizens. Horses were more important; they’re more beautiful. And cows were always in the background. As I started writing, because I spent many years working on this screenplay, the things that I thought were not as important or narratives that were not as important started coming out. Something that I don’t think I’ve said before, but in the first draft of the script that I wrote, like as a vomit draft in 2011, the protagonists were all men. Because I felt that was important. But then, as I started growing up, I started understanding how our society works. And slowly, I feel that the feminine started appearing in a way. So I started looking at cows under a different light, I think.
We have put them in the background, and we have treated them as objects the same way that we have treated our women as objects, you know. So that, of course, became just fundamental for me to explore and understand. Really understanding, it was like, wow, I can’t believe that we have treated them differently than other animals or like they’re dumb. In Chile, at least, hens are thought of as dumb, and cows are thought of as dumb. They’re dumb animals. And it’s like, why do we keep putting animals or human beings in order of importance? That all started dissipating. I was like, this is bullshit.
There was one cut where you went from the cows grazing to the cows being hooked up to the mechanical milking devices that I thought was just incredibly powerful. The cows in the fields look happier when they’re in their element.
While researching this film, I learned so many things about them. They make good friends and have relationships for life. And, of course, I learned that when the calves are in a separate place, the cows can feel when their babies are hungry, and that is the time that the cows are milked. And so naturally, these calves are getting hungry because they need their mother’s milk, but we extract it for ourselves. And those cows get other meals, like powdered milk. It just feels wrong. Then I imagine as women, how the whole system has been set up to just suck from us, while white, powerful men utilize us and do as they please, and it’s like, I don’t want this.
You also use animals as a Greek chorus, beginning the film with the fish, cows, and eventually bees. At what point in your writing process did you decide to use this musical format to explore these themes?
It wasn’t there initially. In the very first draft that I wrote, a cow skull spoke. And that was the opening. The more I worked on it, the more the skull became alive and had layers of skin and muscle. The aspect of the voice was always there, but the musical leitmotif became a frame after years of writing and rewriting, but it was pretty early in the process. Now that I can look at it with perspective, it was step by step. First, the voice, but then I thought that they should not speak like we do. I wanted to find something that was a bit, not necessarily poetic, but just different, that comes from a different part of the brain. Something that’s not so rigid. I think that’s why I decided to write the lyrics as well. Because I’m not a musician. I don’t come from the musical world. I am very ignorant about music. I really love it, but I’m ignorant. So I thought, let’s have a little more clumsy way of them singing. I’m also a fan of musicals. So it was a way for me to also explore that world. The deeper into the script we got, the more nature became interesting to me.
Both of your films look at nature, superstition and how humans have engaged with nature over time from this very spiritual, supernatural place. But also now, like we see with the pulp factory story developing on the news in the background, for capitalist reasons. How did that engagement between humans and nature make its way into your film?
I think it’s just like the stories I grew up with, you know, that become part of your way of thinking and imagination. This superstitious culture was part of grandfather and grandmother’s farm; it was in the village stories. Where they would say this happened, so he was the Devil’s Eye. Everything is always interconnected. Something natural happens, but maybe it’s a touch strange, so there’s something mystical that must explain it. Or it’s a sort of punishment. In our culture, because of the Catholic Church and other things, if that person’s house got burned out of nowhere, then maybe he deserved it. It was the Devil, you know? You’re born into this fear, and it starts getting stuck in you. And becomes how we all see the world. I’m so delighted by how Chileans or South Americans sometimes see an interconnection between things that rationally may not.
I specifically love the imagery of the bugs and the mushrooms in this film. In the opening, you have those beautiful red and white, almost fairytale of mushrooms and ants crawling up the tree. And then, every once in a while, you’ll cut to a bug just walking through dead leaves. It’s some of the most beautiful imagery I’ve seen of bugs. I feel like bugs are often looked at as villainous, but really, they are like nature’s recyclers. How did you capture that imagery?
Well, it was a mixture of those mushrooms, the amanita muscaria, all around that area. There’s areas where you have like 20 or 30 all together. And you’re right, like this film has a touch of fable to it, so it felt right to have this iconic version of a mushroom right away as an entry to a world that is not going to be realistic.
Most of the bugs we found there. I wanted to give them some space. The worms, we brought to that specific place. But even back in school in Chile, when I was studying film, I always had bugs somewhere. I think that I like that micro world that is also looking at us, that we don’t pay attention to. And there’s a lot of people that hate bugs. And I’m like, we are the ones doing damage. You know, they’re just doing good things, and we’re stomping on their home. I don’t know, but maybe it’s like, how do you say when you like something too much, and you eat it over and over again? I feel that I have that with bugs, and that’s why I want them in my films.
I love that. I was thinking about the bug shots, specifically the ants, and this sequence where Magdalena is walking on a train track, and it all reminded me a bit of “Twin Peaks.” Is David Lynch’s use of nature and mysticism an inspiration for you?
I did not use him as a direct reference, like showing the team his work. But for sure, he’s been in my brain, like that ear [in “Blue Velvet”]. He pays attention to strange details like that. I think he’s definitely in my brain when I’m thinking of certain scenes or images. I really enjoy his cinema. I feel connected to the fact that he was first a painter or a visual artist because that’s what I thought I would be. Then I got the courage to go into film. Because in my country, it was not … my parents cried when I did. So I really admire, and I like his iconography. I like his way of portraying the world behind the veil. I think that he’s very interested in that as well. Into everything that we don’t focus on, like spirits, bugs, and nature. That they have a whole world going on and communication, and they’re having like a whole scene, and we’re just like too blind or too self-centered to even notice other humans.
Since you started with male characters, which is fascinating, but now the bulk of the film is around these women, these generations of women, and I’d love to hear what you were looking for in the actors to portray these characters.
It was very much happening at a chemical level. I would say because I was thinking of casting, but I hadn’t liked anyone yet. I went to the Sundance Labs to develop scenes and experiment with five scenes of the script. So Sundance helped cast the scenes. They usually call actors and actresses who reside in the U.S. for practical purposes. So we started looking for either Chilean or South American actresses and actors based in LA or that area. I knew of Leonor Varela, who plays Cecilia, for a long time, and I was an admirer. So we call her to play Cecilia. I didn’t know Mia [Maestro] at the time, but I saw her as a reference and decided I would like to try her for Magdalena.
I met them in person for the first time in the labs. It was only going to be for the labs, just like an exercise. But when we were done, it felt like we were communicating, not only as colleagues on our project, but they felt right for the parts. They showed a lot of dedication and connection with the project. So after that, I was like, this is it. They are Cecilia and Magdalena.
And did you have Mia study any silent films? Her performance is so evocative, without ever saying a word, just her being. She’s amazing.
All her. All the credit goes to her. I mean, of course, we talked about it many times, but she did such profound preparation. They knew that they were going to be these characters, and they read different versions of the script for years. So they were getting impregnated with the nature of those characters. That’s all her talent. I didn’t need to direct her that much at all. Like, she really went deep into that character’s psyche, I think, and also proposed many things that were not in the script to show her emotions. It was a great collaboration.
I love this sequence where Cecilia has just bumped her head, and she says, “I thought I knew the woods,” and the housekeeper replies, “We never truly know them.” I thought that was a really powerful scene because it’s not just about nature but everything in life. You never really know what you’re doing, even though you always think you know. Cecilia’s a doctor, and she thinks she knows everything and can control everything. I’d love to hear how you landed on taking someone like Cecilia and just throwing her back into the woods.
That line is from [co-writer] Manuela Infante. She wrote that line for sure, which I thought was amazing. I think that although all of the characters are based on my family and family members, and although I place myself in Tomás, I’ve had that kind of like not being understood for my sexuality, but I can also relate to Cecilia. My mom was very pragmatic and practical. She grew up in the countryside, but she has become a more modern woman. But of course, I extrapolate; that’s not exactly my mom. I can relate with a lot of women who need to put on a lot of layers to go out in the world and feel that they are respected and seen.
In Cecilia’s case, that forest, that mystery, that rawness is directly linked with her mother’s suicide, which in her mind means abandonment. You know, “my mother abandoned me here. I don’t want to come to this messy, scary place because I want to have everything under control, and my life is under control. And I will never be like my mother.” and all these things. This film is more archetypical, maybe in some ways, but I felt the same. I’ve said I never want to be like my mother. That sort of mother-daughter relationship, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen it around the new generations that get just completely disconnected from their roots. I mean, myself, I live in a city now. All those stories from my childhood with my grandfather, I don’t do them anymore. I try, but my life has become something much more like a big city dweller. So that felt like something that I see, and it’s happening to me in my life.
I can relate to that as well, having been a country mouse, and then I’ve lived in many different cities for the last 20 years. Every time I go home, part of me is like, stay with the goats, and another part is like, no, go back to the city.
And now our lives are kind of like with a target. We want to go somewhere. I’m a very happy person and very grateful. But those summers where you had were running outside barefoot in the mud and adults were nowhere to be seen. I don’t know what’s better.
I agree. Those times are magical. How do you hope people feel after they’ve finished watching this film?
My wish would be for people to leave the theater with a more open space in their minds and hearts for other possibilities of relating to each other and the world. That it’s not all rational. That we don’t always need to make decisions from the head. I think that there’s a world that we don’t see on a day-to-day basis. This film was trying to open up the possibility of what lies beneath the surface, behind a veil, or outside of the rational part of the brain.
Are there any women who have inspired you to make films or that you particularly love and whose films you think readers should watch?
Well, a really big influence has been a Ukrainian American filmmaker from the 1940s, Maya Deren. Her films have inspired me a lot. Her language is so unique. I’m sure a lot of filmmakers have been inspired, and they don’t even realize it. Her use of time-space. Her oneiric world is very rich. And the feminine, or the way in which she explores the feminine, with nature as well in short films like “At Land,” in which the sea is very present. She has been like a real inspiration.
There are a lot of female filmmakers who are doing really inspiring and bold work. There’s a Chilean filmmaker whose first film was really disruptive. She’s called Marialy Rivas, and she did a film called “Young and Wild. (Joven y alocada),” with a queer narrative that just took the medium a bit beyond, including scenes with stop motion. She’s now doing TV and other things now, but her voice in the queer and female sphere has been really exciting because she has not stuck to the model. There’s a Costa Rican filmmaker called Nathalie Álvarez Mesén. Her first feature is called “Clara Sola,” which was a beautiful, magical realist film. There’s a Lebanese filmmaker Mounia Akl, who is a friend of mine, who I really love. Her first film, “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” came out a few years ago. It also explores this connection between reality and other possibilities coming from the psyche of her characters. There are so many filmmakers.
“The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future” opens May 19 at the Quad Cinema in NY and May 26 at the Landmark Nuart in LA, followed by national expansion.