Film

A Fantastic Woman, review – Oscar hopeful is a powerful portrait of prejudice

Her name is Marina – and you won’t forget her. Transgender actress Daniela Vega puts in a stunning turn in this Chilean film about standing tall in face of intolerance.

Chilean film A Fantastic Woman is nominated as best foreign-language film in this year’s Oscars. Its lead character is Marina Vidal, a glamorous thirtysomething who lives up to the high standards implied in the movie’s title with breezy determination. At one point we see her walk along an unprepossessing street in downtown Santiago. The wind picks up, and in a moment that departs from the film’s tone of lush naturalism, it builds into a raging gale as fierce as any Kansas tornado Dorothy might have faced. And yet Marina, leaning into the wind with gravity-defying strides, perseveres.

It’s an arresting image from director Sebastián Lelio. As a metaphor for Marina’s unyielding attitude it might be a bit obvious, but it still resonates forcefully. Marina battles on, a force of nature, despite the elements gathered in opposition, and this big-hearted, sweepingly realised melodrama plays like an intoxicating tribute to that fighting spirit.

At the centre of the film is a powerhouse performance by Daniela Vega, a breakthrough turn by a transgender actress. Marina is trans, and the film is in some ways a finely judged portrait of the prejudice – subtle and not so subtle – that Marina faces in present-day Chile.

The intolerance she encounters, unsparingly depicted by Lelio, makes for sour viewing, but the movie begins with a sequence of transporting sweetness. Celebrating her birthday Marina is taken out for the night by her boyfriend Orlando, a 57-year-old businessman played as a model of silver-fox courtliness by Francisco Reyes. They meet for a drink, go out for a meal, then end the night dancing – it’s a dreamy evocation of a loving relationship, but one that’s abruptly terminated when Orlando suffers an aneurysm in the middle of the night and dies in the clinic.

Vega’s performance, vulnerable and raw, suggests a reserve of indomitable resilience, a defiant individuality

Marina is devastated, and the film is, among other things, a heart-rending depiction of grief. But she barely has the chance to express this loss before being attacked and dismissed by Orlando’s relatives and the authorities. His ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) demands the return of Orlando’s car and bans her from the funeral. His son issues dark threats to remove her from the flat that Orlando shared with her. A detective levels insulting accusations over the nature of Marina’s relationship with Orlando and, most cruelly, forces her to submit to a humiliating strip search.

An ugly current of transphobia animates these attitudes – which culminate in a violent attack on Marina at her lowest ebb. Vega’s performance, vulnerable and raw, never underplays the impact of this relentless hostility, but it also suggests a reserve of indomitable resilience, a defiant individuality that is a magnificent rejoinder to the attempts by Orlando’s relatives to pretend she simply doesn’t exist.

“When I see you I don’t know what I see,” Sonia says to Marina with pinched contempt. “An illusion.” It’s a cutting remark, designed to wound, that points to the reviled label Marina has as the other woman who broke up an established (and, it seems, unsatisfactory) marriage. But it’s also a commentary on the invisible status of trans women like Marina in Chilean society.

This richly humanist, exquisitely poised movie puts Marina front and centre. “My name is Marina Vidal,” the fantastic woman at the heart of this winning drama proclaims on a number of occasions, a rousing affirmation of who she is in the face of pressure to sink into the shadows – you won’t forget her.

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