A FANTASTIC WOMAN (UNA MUJER FANTASTICA). Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolas Saavedra, and Amparo Noguera. Directed by Sebastian Lelio. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 104 min.
This subtitled Chilean drama tells the story of Marina, a waitress by day and nightclub singer by night, who is traumatised by the death of her male lover. It has been nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Film at the 2018 Academy Awards, and it has been rated as one of the top five Foreign Language Films of 2017 by the National Board of Review.
Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) is a transgender woman in love with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an older man, who falls ill shortly after celebrating her birthday. Orlando passes away with an aneurysm, and unable to mourn the death of her lover, she is treated everywhere with suspicion.
Orlando’s family are suspicious of her intent, and the doctor in charge of treating Orlando at the hospital regards her as a criminal. Marina is investigated by a female Police Officer (Amparo Noguera) from the Sexual Offences Unit, who wants to see if she was involved in Orlando’s death, and the Officer forces Marina to be photographed naked, “for an injury evaluation”. She asks Marina whether Orlando was paying her for sex. Doctors and Officers use the masculine pronoun to refer to her. Orlando’s son, Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) threatens to throw Marina out of the Santiago apartment she shared with his father, and becomes violent towards her. The family aggressively misgenders Marina, fully aware of the relationship Orlando shared with her, and Marina is barred from attending Orlando’s funeral. Nearly everyone treats Marina’s gender identity with no comprehension of what it actually means to her.
The film is about Marina’s personal struggle to be herself, and to develop the inner strength to assert her rights. She is the “Fantastic Woman” of the film’s title.
The film features Chile’s trans-gender actress, Daniela Vega, who delivers an extraordinary interpretation of the character of Marina. The cinematography of the film suggests Marina’s isolation by the way the camera photographs her, capturing her isolation in long shots, dark shadows and vivid colour. Well constructed fantasy sequences further communicate her ordeal.
Grieving, Marina tries to hold onto the connections she’s has forged, as they are systematically wrenched from her. The Director of the film, Sebastian Lelio, holds his direction firm, and keeps the film’s core focus almost entirely on the experience of the grieving woman. Nearly everyone around Marina is unwilling to accept, or understand her loss.
This is a tender film of a human being under enormous stress, but it also offers a complex study of the subtle nuances of assuming another identity. Marina stubbornly rejects the flawed social system which tries to claim her, and her inner determination is obviously an important part of Orlando’s accepting love of her. Also, the film faces head-on the torment of Orlando’s estranged wife, Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim). It doesn’t moralise or sermonise. It simply expresses the anguish of human loss, and the frustrations that accompany human misunderstanding and prejudice. Marina’s loss is acute, and Orlando’s wife is anguished because she cannot understand the love that has wrenched her husband from her and her family after years of marriage. The film captures both sets of emotions insightfully.
This is a deeply-felt story of personal identity and the trauma of grieving. The film expresses in human, compassionate terms, Marina’s right to mourn Orlando. It is not a movie that examines gender issues, as other movies have done, through male eyes and male desire.
The film richly deserves its Oscar nomination, and Vega’s performance gives the film an extraordinary degree of authenticity. It depicts Marina as a human being, asking to be understood, and who is denied the right to grieve by an intolerant society.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released February 22nd., 2018