It seems that more and more of the best movies are being made outside the Hollywood studio system, if not outside of America altogether, and the fact that several, if not all, of the Best Foreign Film nominees at the 2018 Academy Awards were better than all of those contending for Best Film is testament to this changing paradigm. The fact then that this latest effort from Chilean director Sebastian Lelio beat the likes of Loveless and The Square to win the Oscar is an indication of just how highly regarded it is in the eyes of those who make such decisions. This is a fairly simple story that packs a considerable emotional punch without trying to manipulate the audience into a reaction. With a mesmerising central performance by Daniela Vega as Marina, A Fantastic Woman follows a young woman as she finds herself subjected to ignorance and intolerance following the sudden death of her boyfriend. Vega is rarely absent from the screen and her character transcends loneliness; internally processing her pain and rising above the indignities and hostilities she endures amidst the agony of her bereavement.
When we first meet Marina, she is happily ensconced in a romantic relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an older man in whose apartment she has recently taken up residence. After a night of dinner, dancing and sex, Orlando wakes in the middle of the night feeling desperately ill, disoriented and struggling for breath. Panicked, Marina rushes Orlando to the hospital, but it is to no avail and it is Orlando’s passing that kicks the story into gear. As a transgender woman, Marina is despised and disregarded by Orlando’s family in the wake of his death and finds herself under suspicion from authorities. It is her gender identity, rather than anything she has done, that sees her pathologised and criminalised, with Lelio bringing the ignorance and cruelty of conformism into focus. Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) and ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) make no effort to hide their hostility, demanding that Marina vacate the flat and making it abundantly clear that she is not welcome at the funeral.
The film, for the most part, is a serious, and somewhat sombre, drama given the despicable treatment that Marina endures, however Lelio periodically transitions with supreme confidence and skill from the somewhat straightforward presentation of Marina’s situation to moments of magical realism; often an inner dream state that Marina uses in a bid to stymie the wretchedness that she endures, which includes an assault from Bruno and his friends. A nightclub scene morphs into a mysterious choreographed spectacle, while a walk down the street takes on a sense of the surreal as she struggles against a fierce wind; perhaps a metaphor for the forces pushing against her as she seeks to be treated with dignity and respect. It is these more whimsical moments that might draw comparisons with Pedro Almodovar, particularly given his history of celebrating alternative sexualities but, despite the occasional flourish, Lelio brings a much more constrained, realist approach to the material.
Enraging, funny and surreal, A Fantastic Woman is a film about somebody who is exactly that, a central character who refuses to quit or succumb to the numerous blows she is dealt; both of the literal and figurative variety. It is only Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) who affords Marina any respect, while Trinidad Gonzalez and Nestor Cantillana lighten the mood as Marina’s supportive stoner sister and her flake of a husband. With Vega delivering a performance of such grace as to make her one of the most likeable protagonists you will encounter, Lelio follows up his much-awarded Gloria (which he is currently re-making in America with Julianne Moore) with another highly accomplished work that not only confirms the director as yet another filmmaking force from Latin America (in the footsteps of Cuaron, del Toro, Inarritu and fellow Chilean Pablo Lorrain), but also deserves to deliver a significant commercial return for all those who have invested in this seriously delightful drama.