“A Fantastic Woman,” directed and cowritten by Sebastian Lelio, isn’t quite a fantastic movie. But this compelling Chilean drama condemns hate and ignorance though a gracefully presented story about a grieving trans woman rejected by her deceased lover’s family.
As with Lelio’s impressive “Gloria,” the film contains an embraceable, pleasure-loving and vital heroine, who, in this case, is Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), a Santiago nightclub singer and waitress. The tone is romantic, Latin and mood-shifting.
In a buoyant early passage, Marina sings onstage and makes flirty eye contact with boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes), the decades-older textile-company owner with whom she is radiantly happy.
Celebrating Marina’s birthday, the two dine, dance, drink and make love, but the night ends tragically when Orlando dies of an aneurysm.
As she deals with his death, Marina, because she is transgender, is treated abominably on several fronts.
Orlando’s doctor refuses to recognize her as female and as Orlando’s partner. A police inspector calls Marina by the male name on her old
ID card. A seemingly sympathetic female detective subjects Marina to a humiliating physical examination.
Orlando’s family, save for a kind brother (Luis Gnecco), is even worse. Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) describes Marina as a “perversion” and forbids her from attending the funeral.
Orlando’s son (Nicolas Saavedra) orders Marina to vacate the apartment she shared with Orlando and later becomes shockingly brutal.
We follow Marina as she contends with these and other challenges, standing up for her right, as Orlando’s devoted and valid partner, to be part of the proper mourning process.
A caring sister and brother-in-law provide support.
Lelio and cowriter Gonzalo Maza don’t explore Marina’s dreams and desires beyond surface-level elements, like an interest in singing opera. The film isn’t much of a character portrait.
Fantastical and daydreamy material inserted by Lelio, which sometimes suggests the work of fellow Chilean Pablo Larrain, isn’t always compatible with the realistic prevailing tone.
But Lelio directs with humanity, poise and quiet passion, and those qualities shine in his heroine, whose insistence that she be treated respectfully drives the story affectingly.
Even when off-target, his flourishes are vividly intriguing. When successful, as when Marina imagines she’s a glistening clad dance-routine leader, they are fascinating and supply a needed glimpse into Marina’s feelings.
Vega, a relative newcomer who is transgender and a singer, brings to accessible life a character who, as written, is rather an enigma. Portrayed by her, Marina is a deserving and magnetic protagonist as she navigates her predicament with generally contained anger, a sense of dignity and a bit of necessary stealth.
She does lose her cool occasionally, becoming fantastically crazy.
Oscar-nominated for best foreign-language film, the movie couldn’t have succeeded with a lesser star.
A Fantastic Woman
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim
Written by: Sebastian Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Directed by: Sebastian Lelio
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes