A Fantastic Woman

A-Fantastic-Woman-rev A Fantastic Woman  (2017)    Sony Pictures Classics/Drama    RT: 104 minutes    Rated R (language, sexual content, nudity, a disturbing assault)    Director: Sebastian Lelio    Screenplay: Sebastian Lelio and Gonzalo Maza and Sebastian Lelio    Music: Matthew Herbert    Cinematography: Benjamin Echazarreta    Release date: February 16, 2018 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolas Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Trinidad Gonzalez, Nestor Cantillana.      Spoken in Spanish w/English subtitles

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 The title A Fantastic Woman couldn’t be more accurate. The main character Marina (newcomer Vega) is a fantastic woman although some would debate the latter part. You see, Marina is transgender. In a perfect world, she would be accepted as a female. But it’s not a perfect world. Less progressive types regard her with disgust and hatred. Whether it’s a security officer referring to Marina as “he” or being denied the right to mourn her recently deceased lover, she faces prejudice and ignorance on a daily basis. How she handles it is the emotional core of A Fantastic Woman.

 Fantastic WomanWritten and directed by Sebastian Lelio (2013’s Gloria), A Fantastic Woman opens on a high note with Marina, a waitress and cabaret singer, celebrating her birthday with much older lover Orlando (Reyes, The Club). He takes her to a nice restaurant where they eat, drink and dance. They go back to his place and make love. It’s a perfect night. That is, until he wakes up in excruciating pain due to a brain aneurysm. Marina rushes him to the hospital where he dies on the operating table. That’s when her troubles start. The doctors regard her with suspicion. Security keeps calling her “he” because her driver’s license still lists her gender as male. A female cop, Adriana (Noguera, Neruda), shows up at her work to question her about bruises found on Orlando’s body (he fell down the stairs when leaving for the hospital). She later subjects Marina to a humiliating physical examination to make sure there are no signs of abuse.

 However, the worst of it comes from Orlando’s family. His ex-wife Sonia (Kuppenheim, Young and Wild), barely concealing her hatred of Marina, forbids her from attending the wake and funeral. His son Bruno (Saavedra, Santiago Violenta) shows up at their apartment and threatens to evict her. He won’t even allow her to keep the dog Diabla. The only one to show any compassion is Orlando’s brother Gabo (Gnecco, Neruda); he gently warns her to keep her distance. All Marina wants is the basic human right to mourn the man she loved but because she’s a trans woman, she is treated as less than a person. She struggles to maintain her strength and dignity in the face of adversity.

 It might sound trite to say that A Fantastic Woman is, as per its title, fantastic but it’s the honest truth. This movie, a Chilean import and nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Film, treats its human subject with respect and compassion. At the center is a terrific performance by Vega, the first openly transgender actress. Hers is a performance of true beauty and tenderness. She brings heart and soul to Marina, a woman looking for acceptance in an intolerant world. Her grief is palpable as she sees visions of Orlando everywhere. She was happy and secure with him but now that he’s been taken from her, she feels less secure in her person. It certainly doesn’t help that his family is openly hostile towards her. Vega, in her first role, delivers a truly remarkable performance. She has a very commanding presence that belies her character’s vulnerability. If the Academy had a Best Debut Performance category, Vega would be a lock.

 Vega is the main reason to see A Fantastic Woman but not the only one. While Lelio handles the subject of transgenderism sensitively, he’s never heavy-handed or preachy with his message of acceptance. He doesn’t soft-pedal the issue; at one point, Marina is the victim of an assault. At the same time, he’s not afraid to drive into Almodovar territory with the heroine’s flights of fancy. In one scene, she imagines herself in a bright, dazzling musical number in a dance club. In this moment, she sees herself as the woman she longs to be. There’s also a great scene where she walks down the street fighting against a wind so strong, her body is almost parallel to the ground. The symbolism is obvious; she’s fighting against the forces of nature (standing in for human nature). Lelio even throws in a bit of mystery with Marina trying to find out what a mysterious key in Orlando’s possessions unlocks. This movie is absolutely brilliant in nearly every respect.

 The only flaw I see in A Fantastic Woman is that it doesn’t delve into Marina’s personal history. What was she like as a child? What do her parents think of her being transgender? We meet her sister and brother-in-law and they’re supportive but it would have been nice to learn more about Marina’s past. That’s just a small problem in an overall excellent movie. The cinematography by Benjamin Echazarreta is a particular strong point. Look at the way he puts Marina at the center of nearly every frame. She is usually alone in the frame. The streets of Santiago are unusually devoid of other people. This is meant to illustrate Marina’s sense of isolation. The rest of the cast, especially Kuppenheim, does a great job. A Fantastic Woman is easily one of the most satisfying films I’ve seen in a while. Don’t miss it!

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