"A Fantastic Woman" - ★ ★ ★
The lead character of Sebastian Lelio's film "A Fantastic Woman" is named Marina. She is a nightclub singer and a waitress. She has a boyfriend, Orlando, who is much older, but that matters little. They are clearly smitten with one another and in that post-honeymoon phase of the relationship where things are still passionate, but also calm and comforting. They're planning a trip. She's moving in. Life is moving along nicely it seems.
Marina is also a transgender woman, portrayed by a transgender actress, Daniela Vega. If you've heard of "A Fantastic Woman," which recently picked up a best foreign language film nomination for Chile, you've likely heard this fact. It might even be the only thing you know about it.
What's astonishing about the actual experience of watching "A Fantastic Woman" is how small of "a thing" it really is, and in that way perhaps one of the truest expressions of modern transgender life that we've seen in a fictional film. Marina is just Marina. She has a delicate beauty, and a cool choppy Alexa Chung-like haircut and style. On stage, she performs with a sultry confidence. Off stage, she's quieter and almost reserved, but very present, especially around Orlando (Francisco Reyes).
But one night, Orlando dies suddenly and Marina's tranquility is thrown into a tailspin -- not just from the death of her love, but from all the unnecessary and often ridiculous complications, some bureaucratic, some emotional, that emerge and seem to stem from the fact that she is transgender.
At the hospital where Orlando dies, her legal name becomes an issue with a cop (who an uncomfortable doctor calls when she leaves the scene after he's pronounced dead). A social worker, too, becomes obsessed with checking on Marina, which she continues to explain is just a matter of procedure and to ensure that she was not abused or a sex worker, but which feels nothing but invasive from Marina's perspective. Orlando's family, too, is unconscionably cruel to her -- save for his brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco), who seems to be the only person in the film empathetic to the fact that Marina is just a human who has lost a loved one.
Every day is filled with the ever-present threat that someone is going to be uncomfortable with her. Marina is gracious and accommodating almost to a fault, both to the insidiously subtle kinds of judgment and the more outward violence and hatred. Orlando's ex-wife tells her in no uncertain terms that she is not welcome at the funeral or wake. His grief-stricken son is disgusted by her. And all Marina wants to do is grieve in her own way.
Lelio's film occasionally delves into some magical realism as Marina struggles to maintain her composure amid such callous inhumanity, which is a beautiful if jarring disruption in a film that's otherwise so committed to reality.
Vega's extraordinary performance, full of grace and depth, keeps "A Fantastic Woman" in check from becoming something either too campy or too sanctimonious. It's one that has the power to make an audience really understand and internalize why it is an act of bravery to simply live life as herself, and perhaps even change some minds in the process.
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Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco
Directed by: Sebastián Lelio
Other: A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated R for language, sexual situations, nudity and violence. At Chicago's River East 21 and Music Box Theatre, plus Cinemark Evanston. In Spanish with subtitles. 104 minutes