Directed by Sebastian Lelio
Written by Sebastian Lelio & Gonzalo Maza
We live in the 21st century, which has stood on the shoulders of giants who have come before in terms of social acceptance and freedom. It’s also a time, at least in the current American climate, which seems to be at political odds with itself more than any time I can remember. Surely some of that perception comes from me being a 29 year old who is finally participating in political discourse for a few reasons. One, I’m old enough and have a stake in the game, and two, I have formed opinions which have come from my experiences and relationships. All that being said, there is much in the way of human rights and equality which is still yet to pass in this country. I cannot comment on the political state of many other countries, including Chile, where this film is set, but what A Fantastic Woman does well is in reminding us not just of the hurdles already overcome, but most especially those which still lie ahead.
Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) is a waitress and nightclub singer who has struck up a romantic relationship with the older Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After a night on the town celebrating a birthday, the pair share a passionate night, but are rudely awakened by a sudden medical emergency. Orlando is not himself, and after rushing him to the hospital, he passes away from what is later learned to be an aneurysm. Bereaved by the sudden loss of her lover, Marina must now deal with the after affects, when it is learned that Marina is a transsexual. As a result, Orlando’s family shuns her from the grieving process, forcing Marina to deal with the trauma in her own way.
What immediately stands out about A Fantastic Woman, and is worth mentioning first in any review of the film, is the performance of Daniela Vega. Vega’s strong features make for a convincing transsexual, but it wasn’t even until the secret is revealed to us that I even noticed. She is a beautiful woman, just as her character Marina is. What Vega imparts upon the character are so many impressive attributes. Marina is strong, independent, motivated, beautiful, but she is also emotional and feeling, complex. Confident. She knows who she is, even as society denies her her identity, even as they deny her her right to grieve in public. Daniela Vega fuels everything in this film with her performance. She is pitch perfect in delivering the compassionate message this film offers its viewers. It is hard to imagine the film working as well as it does with any other actress in the role.
Vega is fantastic, as is Marina. Yes, that much is true. But the film is impressive for more reasons than her, though she may be the driving force. Director Sebastian Lelio, along with his script, which he co-wrote with Gonzalo Maza, are able to craft a very sympathetic narrative. I mentioned politics and human rights in the opening, and A Fantastic Woman shows just how much further we have to go. By writing Marina as a strong, yet sensitive, loving and caring character, Lelio and Maza have forced the viewer to reckon with “why?” Why should she be shunned? Why should she be gawked at? Why should she be discriminated against, refused to be accepted? By exploring these questions the filmmakers have forced the viewer to look inward. In this introspective experience, some will find love, while others may still yet find hate (though I doubt many of them will even bother to see the film to begin with).
Exploring these themes not only forces us into an introspective experience with ourselves, but also an introspective experience as a society. How can we be better, more accepting? Why does hate still exist? Don’t we just fear what we don’t understand, and if that is the case, why don’t we understand? Lelio’s film, and especially Vega’s performance are understanding. They are sympathetic. There is a scene in the film where Marina holds a mirror, hiding her private parts. Isn’t that just it, aren’t we all simply who we see ourselves to be? The sad reality is that society is not as accepting as we are, even after we might have to overcome our own hurdles, our own burnt in opinions of how something is supposed to be. How harrowing to know that even after Marina overcame her own demons, that she would be faced with those brought on by society too.