Winning the 2017 foreign language Oscar may still not be enough incentive for moviegoers to purchase tickets to view a Spanish-language film that takes place in Chile. “A Fantastic Woman,” admired by critics, and currently screening in select markets, might need a major publicity push to entice customers.
Citing visual distractions, people generally shun films with dubbed dialogue (voice not fitting the face), or having one eye on the scene while the other follows the sub titles. Viewers are therefore lulled into lazy viewing, side tracked by Hollywood’s money making action flicks (slam-bam, kapow bedlam) pushing aside the intelligent stimulation of “art” films.
Another obstacle could be the plot’s title character, a transgender woman played by an unknown (at least in North America) 28-year-old transgender Chilean actress who’s talent includes a successful singing career (lyrical mezzo-soprano).
As a 14-year-old, Daniela Vega’s life split in two, and she began her transition from a man to a woman. She made history becoming the first transgender presenter at the Oscars ceremony in February, a follow up to her best actress award at the Marseille Internation Film Festival. Exposure in this film could swing the international spotlight her way.
Sebastian Lelio, an Argentinian-born Chilean director who initially hired Vega as a “cultural advisor”, became intrigued by her potential in front of the camera, and cast her in his Oscar-winning movie. His instinct was flawless, allowing Vega to shine in a breakout role.
Besides being a step up in her cinema career, Vega says the film “talks about the limits of empathy and who places barriers in the way of trans people. Trans people have existed since the first day of humanity,” further stating that acceptance by society is a significant problem. Speaking out against the inequalities transgender people face in her home country, Vega says that, in Chile, “I have a name on my identity card that is not my name. In the country where I was born I do not have the possibility of having my own name on my official documents.” A gender identity bill – which would allow trans people to identify themselves with their preferred names rather than their assigned ones – is being considered by a congressional committee.
Marina (Vega) and Orlando (popular Chilean actor Francisco Reyes), are in love and planning for the future. Marina is a young waitress and aspiring singer. Orlando is 20 years older than her, an independant business man who owns a printing company. After celebrating Marina’s birthday one evening, Orlando falls seriously ill. Marina rushes him to the emergency room, but he passes away just after arriving at the hospital. Instead of being able to mourn her lover, suddenly Marina is treated with suspicion. Its the start of numerous indignities she’ll have to suffer as she mourns the greatest loss of her life. The doctors and Orlando’s family don’t trust her. A woman detective investigates Marina to see if she was involved in his death. Orlando’s ex-wife forbids her from attending the funeral.
To make matters worse, Orlando’s son threatens to throw Marina out of the flat she shared with Orlando. Marina is a trans woman and for most of Orlando’s family, her sexual identity is an aberration, a perversion. Humiliated and degraded, Marina defies the family’s threat and appears at the funeral service only to be physically assaulted by friends of the family.
Seeking justice on her own, Marina, distraught over this unexpected treatment, struggles for the right to be herself, attempting to deal with her anguish over Orlando’s death in a world that has a built-in discrimination towards trans people. Its been a lifelong struggle resisting prejudice, with dignity and poise achieving the person she is now – a complex, strong, forthright and fantastic woman.
The drama is low key, laying bare an uncomfortable situation that nonetheless breathes optimism. In Lelio’s film the actress mirrors her real life situation so that fact and fiction become one. Vega lives her actual existence through the defiant on screen character Marina, who finds herself shut out of her former life. The actress deeply impresses with a gentle, yet compelling performance.
Sebastian Lelio directs with an artful touch in his beautifully shot, emotionally charged journey that bridges differing societal points on self, gender, class identity and beliefs.
One feels an euphoric sense of appreciation for the film’s artistry, as well for its sensitivity in focusing on a difficult subject labeled by detractors as “not normal”.