Chilean foreign film “A Fantastic Woman” completely lives up to its title, proving itself to be fantastic, if not outstanding. “A Fantastic Woman” is a consummate example of giving minority gender identity stories a voice in film, especially with visionary direction by Chilean-Argentinian director Sebastián Lelio (“Gloria”) and a breathtaking performance by Daniela Vega (“The Guest”). It is no shocker as to why it rivaled American films this past season, resulting in an Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film.
A story to be revered and admired, “A Fantastic Woman” underscores the complexities and complications of love and loss, and the quest for personal and gender identity. Marina, played by Vega, is a transgender woman living as a singer in Chile, dating an older, wealthier divorcee, Orlando (Francisco Reyes, “Neruda”). But despite some tropes of relationships with a vast age difference, Marina doesn’t use Orlando for his money. Marina doesn’t care about any of that. In fact, the only possession she desires after his passing is the dog they share. Orlando provides her with one thing that no one else can: He sees her. When Orlando suddenly suffers an aneurysm and dies, Marina is forced to confront prejudices and suffer abuse from Orlando’s family. They try and tear her down, but she perseveres.
“A Fantastic Woman” is also a tale about self-preservation and resistance. Lelio doesn’t give us much of a glimpse into Marina’s backstory because we don’t require it. The film’s dialogue is simple and deliberate. Based on Vega’s performance — its nuance, tenderness and strength — we can infer it hasn’t been easy for her, but it’s not overly sentimental and it doesn’t make us feel pity for her. She is ridiculed by Orlando’s ex-wife, who calls her a “chimera,” or a fire-breathing monster in Greek mythology. The investigator who questions her after Orlando dies refuses to call her Marina because he knows she is trans. But none of this surprises Marina; she doesn’t expect anything from anyone, which makes the loss of her love, her one piece of hope, all the more heartbreaking. Vega herself, who brings Marina’s fortitude to life, is a big trans rights crusader in South America. This will not be Vega’s last stellar performance.
Vega tells the story through her acting, while the rest of the story is told through avant-garde cinematography by Lelio that elevates the film’s aesthetics into an artful and abstract piece of work. Despite some sleepy moments, daytime shots are met with sensual, dream-like night sequences with colored lights and glitter that reflect Marina’s deepest desires of peace — to be met back with her love and be on the stage. Sparkly choreographed sequences of Marina dancing and singing, breaking the fourth wall and distancing from the reality of the piece, don’t allow us to forget about her suffering. And the quite striking and unusual shot of Marina walking as the wind pushes back on her, used in the trailer, is an in-your-face visual allegory of her defiance in a world that repeatedly tries to knock her down.
Really, “A Fantastic Woman” is about not judging others. It urges us to be accepting and to open our minds and our hearts. It’s heartbreaking, at times too tragic to even watch, but by the end, we’re all on Marina’s side.