a woman stands in a river holding a motorcycle helmet
Credit: Gene Siskel Film Center

Rife with evocative symbolism, Chilean director Francisca Alegria’s feature debut is an audacious, surrealistic expression of acute ecological distress and various ideas pertaining to contemporary agita. The film takes place in the south of Chile, where, in 2017, thousands of dead fish washed up along the shores of the Region of the Rivers. (It’s a phenomenon that a simple Google search will reveal is becoming more and more common.)

Like a Greek chorus, an ensemble of these fish—first alive in the water, then dead on land—sing of a drowned woman coming back soaked with life, as they will one day, too. This woman is Magdalena (Mia Maestro), who emerges from the water dressed in a mechanic’s jumpsuit, her outfit and dirty hair reminiscent of Sandrine Bonnaire in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond. Both are female characters whose motivations subvert societal (and here even familial) expectations, their demises being the ultimate escape from such constraints.

Elsewhere, a young trans girl, Tomás (Enzo Ferrada), looks at newspaper clippings detailing her grandmother’s death by suicide; she’d tied her feet to the pedals of her motorcycle and rode it into the river. The woman is Magdalena. When she comes back to life (or at least appears to), Magdalena’s widowed husband sees her walking around town and, as a result, has a shock for which he’s hospitalized. Their daughter, Cecilia (Leonor Varela), mother of Tomás, is a doctor who’s unhappy with her life and unaccepting of Tomás’s identity. When she hears her father is in the hospital, she gathers up her kids and takes them to her parents’ house, where Magdalena’s reappearance has a decisive effect on all the family members.

Her father runs a dairy farm with her stifled brother, a sensitive herdsman who’s accepting of Tomás and endeavors to take better care of the cows. Alongside Magdalena it’s the cows that speak most to Cecilia, even as both are technically wordless; as Alegria notes in her director’s statement for the film, cows are “the Great Mothers, who are forced into a system that separates them from their children. The Cows have become the exploited body of the feminine, of maternity, [and] of Earth’s Abundance.” This is provocatively realized in all the sequences involving the animal, the cattle’s presence exalted from mere bovine to terrestrial matriarch. In the same way they sing to Cecilia, they sing to us, as well.

The film’s greatest strengths are its magical realist elements, whose uncanniness helps to merge contemporary awareness with larger philosophical considerations of gender and the natural world. Alegria’s vision, from a script she cowrote with Manuela Infante and Fernanda Urrejola, is sensitively realized, though the sheer breadth of the ideas—everything from the ongoing risk of bee extinction to a young person’s identity—feels at times overwrought. Still, its earnest fantasticality beguiles, and, just like the singing fish and cows, comes to feel as natural as anything else. 98 min.

Gene Siskel Film Center