Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman sets its title character on a quest for recognition of her basic human rights. This soon proves to be a difficult and soul trying pursuit, one that’s met by hindrance and sometimes vicious opposition.
Marina (Daniela Vega), a still-young café waitress, has met her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) after her performance in a Santiago, Chile club where she sometimes sings. It’s her birthday, and the couple began a night of celebration before they returned to his apartment, where, after a session of lovemaking, he suffered a fatal aneurysm.
Marina’s trials begin when a cop, called to the hospital by suspicious staff, addresses her as Daniel after reading her ID. She’s transgender and this fact will cause her an expanding series of slights, restrictions, humiliations and abuses. Marina understands her unusual situation and tries to accommodate Orlando’s family, especially Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), his angrily resentful estranged, or former, wife (the movie’s a little vague about this) and his aggressively belligerent, possibly dangerous son (Nicolás Saavedra), but they are disdainful and insulting. Sonia tells Marina, “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing.” They consider her a repellant trespasser and bar her from Orlando’s wake and funeral.
Marina’s quest, then, is to find a way to mourn him without anyone’s permission. In this mission, she musters resolve, courage and a calm intelligence in the face of some very unpleasant tests. She’s almost too impressive for us to believe, but Lelio’s movie (which he co-wrote) and Vega’s careful performance encourage our sympathy and belief.
Lelio hasn’t stacked his deck. Marina isn’t bereft of aid and empathy: There are her friendly boss, her wryly avuncular singing teacher, and her forthright sister. Lelio has directed in a controlled, steady, and unfussy style, except when he’s interrupted things for several brief surreal sequences, of varying effectiveness, that are meant to convey the agitation and sorrow beneath Marina’s equanimity.
It occasionally seems that A Fantastic Woman might benefit from a more dramatic tenor (when Marina finally loses it, the eruption seems artificial), and the ending is a little too pat and ceremonial, but the film amounts to an involving depiction of injustices large and small, and a portrait of grace under their burdens.