In some ways, what happens when 20something Marina’s (Daniela Vega) much older boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), dies unexpectedly in their home is a familiar tale: His ex-wife and adult children — some of whom are probably older than Marina herself — rebel at the idea of his new partner attending the wake and funeral. But there’s another issue: Marina is transgender, which just adds an extra layer to what his family considers her inappropriateness. So now the constant battle she faces for acceptance every day, everywhere, is compounded by her utter heartbreak: she truly loved Orlando, and he her, and she is shattered by his loss. And she is not being allowed to grieve in the way she needs to. Her grief isn’t even acknowledged.
Chilean writer (with Gonzalo Maza) and director Sebastián Lelio last gave us the soaringly joyous Gloria, about a 50something woman living life on her own terms, and A Fantastic Woman — Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film — is a similar tale in a minor key. Vega, herself trans, is distressingly moving, honest and unapologetic about the truth of who Marina is, even as her reality challenges the preconceptions of others. This is a quiet yet resolute portrait of bravery and resilience in the face of unconscionable bigotry; Orlando’s ex, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), snipes at Marina, “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” as if Sonia is unable to see simply a person who is profoundly sad and mourning her lover. Even some people who think they are being kind end up dishing out humiliation, like the cop (Amparo Noguera) doing routine investigation into Orlando’s death who can’t seem to accept that their relationship was neither a professional one nor an abusive one (nor both). Marina often seems resigned to the drip-drip of mistreatment and dehumanization she faces — perhaps it’s the only way to cope with it on a daily basis — but Lelio and Vega make sure we are fully enraged on her behalf at the casually cruel smallmindedness of people.
Tiny details about Marina’s life after Orlando and how she manages his absence help make a very specific story about a person whose experience is far from common nevertheless enormously universal: she vows to fight his family for custody of their dog; she finds a strange key in his car and busies herself with the small mystery of figuring out what it opens. Lelio deploys hints of the fantastical to add bittersweet fillips to Marina’s struggle; the moment in which her stroll down a Santiago street becomes a battle against an impossible wind made me cry, it’s such a beautiful evocation of the effort she is forced to put into the most ordinary moments of her day. But this is very much what A Fantastic Woman is all about: how Marina is battered but enduring. This is a wonderfully human story, and the warmth and respect with which Lelio treats Marina, and the ordinariness with which he depicts her life, is lovely. That shouldn’t be so surprising or heartening, but we’ve still got so far to go in treating some of our fellow human beings as people. This gorgeous movie will help with that.