A transgender woman deals with grief and discrimination

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

A Fantastic Woman
Roxy Theatre

Opens Feb. 23
4 out of 5

The Chilean nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, A Fantastic Woman is an intimate portrait of three particularly bad days in the life of Marina (star-making turn by Daniela Vega), a transgender opera singer who has traded the belle canto for more popular fare to make ends meet.

Orlando (Francisco Reyes, The Club), Marina’s much older partner, suffers a massive cardiac arrest following intercourse and dies. Marina faces mistrust and prejudice at every corner, as if she was responsible for his death. Not only is she not allowed to grieve, her lover’s family treats her like an outlier not worth the time of day.

Classed as a “person of interest” because of lesions on Orlando’s body, Marina goes through a Kafkaesque and often humiliating process to establish her innocence (LGBTQ rights in Chile are, at best, limited). She endures punishment not for what she may have done, but for who she is.

A Fantastic Woman is a superb character study and a severe indictment of a society that believes itself open-minded, but is actually hypocritical. Writer/director Sebastian Lelio (Gloria) treats Mariana with compassion, but never pity. The lead character’s dignity transcends the screen, and whenever someone calls her by her “legal” (i.e. male) name, you can’t help but wince.

The film does falter every so often (I call for a moratorium on sex dungeons in movies), but overall it underlines Lelio’s skill at writing female characters. Considering Gloria, A Fantastic Woman and the upcoming Disobedience, the Chilean director is poised to give Almodóvar a run for his money.