A Fantastic Woman

Rich in music and empathy, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s 2013 festival hit Gloria was a vivacious study of a middle-aged woman’s longing for life. That flair for female-centred, emotionally keen drama blossoms in his follow-up. First wrenching, finally uplifting, A Fantastic Woman traces a grief-lashed trans singer’s tireless pursuit of respect.

We first encounter Daniela Vega’s Marina in a bar, hitting the right notes as she sings to older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes). But a brutal twist of fortune follows when, later that night, Orlando dies from an aneurysm. Though reeling with shock and sorrow, Marina faces a seemingly insurmountable battle to assert her rights to hospital officials, suspicious cops and contemptuous family-members: sensitivity and understanding are not, it seems, priorities on their plates.

Each year, Hollywood seeks to present its best image to the world during the Oscars, and here’s the kind of picture everyone can feel good about getting behind.

More From The ARTery
Guillermo del Toro, winner of the awards for best director for "The Shape of Water” and best picture for “The Shape of Water”, poses at the Oscars in LA. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
The Best And Worst Moments From This Year’s Academy Awards
The ARTeryMar 5, 2018
New Rep Grapples With School Shootings In Tragically Topical ‘Ripe Frenzy’
The ARTeryMar 5, 2018
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre Scores With ‘Brawler,’ A Tale Of Havoc And Hockey
The ARTeryMar 5, 2018
‘Inclusion Rider’: With Best Actress Win, Frances McDormand Calls For Diversity Advocates
The ARTeryMar 5, 2018
Co-written and directed by the up-and-coming Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio –whose 2014 breakthrough hit “Gloria” wowed crowds at Boston area arthouses for weeks on end back — this is a strikingly well-acted portrait of a character most movies would confine to the margins. It’s also pretty stiff and a chore to sit through.

Transgender opera singer Daniela Vega stars as Marina, a Santiago nightclub chanteuse in the process of moving in with her dashing, much older lover, Orlando (played by Francisco Reyes.) He’s recently extricated himself from a messy divorce, and what little we see of this new relationship is tender and sweetly romantic. Alas, late one night Orlando drops dead from an aneurysm, leaving Marina devastated and alone.

From her first interview with a disgusted police officer who rudely insists on calling her “Daniel” (the name on her driver’s license), Lelio’s film establishes its MO. Lelio holds on Vega’s achingly stoic face while subjecting Marina to a stream of bigotry ranging from the everyday insensitive to the shockingly vulgar, alongside a collection of crushing indignities.

One cop suspects she might have knocked off the old man, while another thinks he might have been abusing her. Meanwhile, Orlando’s former family wants Marina nowhere near his funeral, his ex-wife horribly embarrassed by what she calls his “perversion.” They also want his car, apartment and all his possessions back. Hell, they even take the dog.

Francisco Reyes as Orlando and Daniela Vega as Marina. (Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Francisco Reyes as Orlando and Daniela Vega as Marina. (Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Marina is the kind of role that, up until recently, cisgendered stars like Jared Leto won Academy Awards for playing while we all applauded their “bravery” for putting on a dress at work. Indeed, Daniela Vega wasn’t even originally considered for the part, but rather was working as a consultant on the screenplay with Lelio and co-writer Gonzalo Maza when the filmmakers realized what they had in front of them. She’s a magnificent camera subject, with a sharply angular face offsetting eyes that convey tremendous depths of pain.

In fact, Vega is so very good, it’s impossible to watch “A Fantastic Woman” without wishing she’d been given more to do here than just suffer. Marina wanders through the movie numbed with grief and absorbing abuse, which is compelling on a human level but dramatically monotonous. There aren’t exactly a lot of surprises here.

This gets tricky because I personally know a lot of people who could benefit from watching this film, and hopefully see their own ignorance reflected in the boorish behavior of the supporting cast. But then I doubt those folks would ever go to an arthouse to watch some fancy subtitled movie in the first place. So sophisticated audiences are left to cluck their tongues at the appalling attitudes of these awful characters and applaud Marina’s noble, silent resilience. I guess this can be cathartic for some viewers, but to me, it felt too tidy and one-dimensional.

I couldn’t help thinking throughout of “The Florida Project” director Sean Baker’s crassly hilarious Christmas Eve comedy “Tangerine,” which captured the tribulations of two transgender sex workers with rude humor and a bawdy wit. Here was a movie that contained at least as much suffering as “A Fantastic Woman” (probably a lot more) but celebrated the indomitable spirt of its protagonists instead of embalming them in decency.

Rather, the movie this reminded me most of was Jonathan Demme’s extremely well-intentioned and awfully clumsy “Philadelphia.” Nobody talks about that film much anymore, as our culture has (for the most part) moved beyond the ugly AIDS paranoia that drove the drama, and there wasn’t much of a movie there beyond the issues and inevitable awards speeches. The best I can hope for my trans friends is that “A Fantastic Woman” will soon seem just as obsolete.

Yet the very contrast between them contributes to the impression that they were meant to be together. And it seems to matter not one bit that Marina is transgender. If anything, most people would notice the age difference first — then wonder how such a nerdy guy wound up with such an attractive woman.

But an enduring relationship, in which their ages would gradually cease to matter, isn’t in the cards. Orlando’s sudden death not only finds Marina besieged by grief but also leaves her vulnerable to hurtful accusations that her life with him was never quite legitimate.

Orlando’s ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim), warns her to stay away from the funeral, and the police seem suspicious that Marina might somehow have been responsible for Orlando’s demise.

Instead of simply being allowed to mourn the man who meant so much to her, Marina is forced to justify her own existence. And the threat of violence from Orlando’s family looms like thunderclouds on the horizon.

“A Fantastic Woman” is a poignant drama about loss, prejudice and dignity. Working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Gonzalo Maza, director Sebastian Lelio (“Gloria”) creates a complex portrait of a transgender woman who thought she had found her place in the world, only to find her sense of self called into question.

Vega, who is transgender in real life, turns in a deeply felt and breathtakingly memorable performance. Marina represents an experience that hasn’t often been portrayed on the screen, but the emotional turmoil that she must navigate is wholly relatable.

In our increasingly polarized time, “A Fantastic Woman” bridges the gap between ignorance and understanding through the transcendent power of art.

What “A Fantastic Woman” • Four stars out of four • Run time 1:45 • Rating R • Content Language, sexual content, nudity and an assault • Language In Spanish with English subtitles