Entertainment » Movies

A Fantastic Woman

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday Feb 12, 2018
Daniela Vega in 'A Fantastic Woman'
Daniela Vega in 'A Fantastic Woman'  

Throughout "A Fantastic Woman," you wonder just when its titular character - a trans-woman from Santiago, Chile - is going to break. Marina (the sensational Daniela Vega) has lost her partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a middle-aged businessman when he has an aneurysm in the middle of the night. She is a waitress and singer who had just moved in with Orlando, yet his death leaves her homeless days later when his son angrily throws her out of their apartment. That is just one of the many indignities that Marina faces in the days following Orlando's death: the police humiliate her by refusing to acknowledge her gender; Orlando's family bans her from attending the memorial service; even a seemingly sympathetic female detective proves transphobic, treating Marina as a suspect in some undefined crime.

Yet throughout she endures the abuse with poise and dignity, never exploding until (spoiler alert) she is denied a visit to Orlando's graveside; and that outrage is short-lived, almost comic. If this were an American film, she'd likely take out an Uzi and wipe out the offending family; yet "A Fantastic Woman" is rooted in the real world where Marina remains a marginalized person barely tolerated by many she comes in contact. It is a testament to the power of Vega's performance that Marina's journey is so compelling, and to Sebastián Lelio's direction that keeps the film from being overly melodramatic or didactic. While there are flashes of color and surrealism throughout, Lelio's style is clean and forthright -- more Dardenne brothers than Pedro Almodovar, which makes his film disturbingly real.

What Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza do extraordinarily well is show how ingrained transphobia is in a patriarchal society, in this case, Chile, but it is easy to transport the story to anywhere in the United States, or at least the numerous red states that don't offer protections to its LGBTQ population. Throughout the film, Marina is victimized, but is never a victim, largely because she never allows herself to be one. Throughout the film she shows extraordinary grace under pressure, never compromising on her values, in this case, her love for Orlando, and finding her peace with his death despite the abuse of his family and the indifference of the world at large.

It is also to Lelio's credit that the family members, who include an angry wife and a sympathetic, though weak brother, are just caricatures of societal prejudices. Her anger feels more of the wife vs. mistress variety (a meme right out of some 1950s Hollywood melodrama). It is only Orlando's hot-headed son feels a bit two-dimensional, though he is the catalyst of a frightening sequence in which Marina is physically abused. As harrowing as this moment is, replete with a horrifying image of disfigurement inflicted on Marina, she calmly moves forward reclaiming her sexuality (and well-being) in the dark of a nightclub's back room.

While the film's dynamic, an account of the indignities Marina faces during an emotionally fraught period in the life, seems repetitive, it is Vega's performance that gives it an edge and its mystery. She has an enigmatic calm that's beautifully captured in her determined stare. Lelio draws some suspense in the story as Marina defiantly seeks a level of respect denied her. Hers has been a life lived being marginalized and her response to that gives "A Fantastic Woman" its steely spine. And when she's seen singing a Baroque aria in the film's final moments, the story ends with a beautiful sense of release. Marina is a survivor and a fantastic one at that.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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