Lelio’s latest film explores the plight of a woman whose intrinsic nature and self-worth are rejected by a world that doesn’t value her.
A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica), directed by Sebastiàn Lelio. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and West Newton Cinema.
By Peg Aloi
This Chilean drama, directed by Sebastiàn Lelio (who also helmed 2013’s Gloria) chronicles the trials and tribulations of a transgender young woman whose lover’s family denies her connection to him. Like Gloria,'A Fantastic Woman' is a film that shows us the earthy underside of what being a strong woman bedeviled by the patriarchy looks like.Click To Tweet In Gloria, a middle-aged, independent, and divorced woman pursues a sex life revolving around her struggle to deal with the childish and needy men she meets. In Lelio’s latest film, the director explores the plight of a young woman whose intrinsic nature and self-worth are rejected by a world that doesn’t value her.
Marina (the stunning Daniela Vega) is a nightclub singer by night and waitress by day. The film opens with her on a date with her partner, a charming and handsome older man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes). They share a romantic meal, and go to a club where they dance affectionately and close, obviously in love. After they go home and settle in for the evening, they start to make love and Orlando feels lightheaded. It becomes clear he’s having a neurological event and Maria is caught off-guard and is unsure of what to do. She drives him to the emergency room in a panic.
He dies rather suddenly and, at the hospital, Marina is treated with suspicion and rudeness by the medical staff. Once Orlando’s family members are notified, they refuse to allow her to attend the funeral. What follows is an uphill emotional climb exacerbated by prejudice. Because Marina lived with Orlando (whose wealth is evidenced by his posh flat) and is a struggling artist, she is suspected of causing his death (he suffered bruises when he fell during his aneurysm); this suspicion brings on humiliating questioning by the police. The idea that she and Orlando enjoyed a loving, consensual relationship is horrifying for his family and something of a crude joke to the officials handling various legal issues. Instead of being able to grieve on her own time, Marina must navigate where she will live (since Orlando’s ex-wife makes sure she won’t stay in their apartment), and fight for the right to be involved in the proceedings generated by her lover’s death. She is even denied the right to keep Orlando’s dog, who is clearly devoted to her. That the animal is more highly valued by Orlando’s family than his domestic partner is one in a long line of cruel and demeaning slights.
Although the story is contextualized within a powerful social issue, the film’s focus stays on Marina’s devotion to Orlando and her struggle to remain patient and civil in the face of hatred and bigotry. She is not only shut out of the funeral proceedings, but she is jeered and physically assaulted. Marina’s treatment by Orlando’s family and by the hospital, police and funeral services no doubt represents how many transgender people are treated in Chile (as well as in many other places). Looked at in a larger, meta-cinematic sense, casting Vega, a transgender actress, in this role speaks to the growing tide of awareness towards diverse casting in the movie industry, which usually casts cisgender (non-trans) actors in such roles. Vega’s expressive face is often called on to register barely perceptible emotions, as Marina fights to remain calm and neutral in the face of horrific treatment. But the subtle twitches of her eyebrows, the restrained quiver of her lips, betray how hard it is for her to continue to hold it together.
The plot is straightforward, but the film’s tone and style supply an artful mix of sensations. The lighting is colorful and heady, partly to convey the atmosphere of the nightclubs where Marina works, but also to suggest a sense of romance and fantasy that bubbles underneath the narrative’s seriousness. In one scene, Marina struggles to walk against the wind. The challenge turns into a surreal, almost comic moment: bent into a acute angle by the powerful force, she should not be on her feet — but she is. It’s an admittedly heavy-handed but brilliant metaphor that sums up her battle against impossible odds. Marina, named for the ocean, is like a force of nature herself, trying to be who she is. The film’s rhythms gracefully accompany her endeavor, rising and falling with every setback or tiny, incremental victory.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.