“Mi nombre es Marina Vidal. Tiene algún problema con eso?” (I’m Marina Vidal. Do you have a problem with that?)
That single line marks the essence of Sebastian Lelio’s new Chilean film Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman)—now an Oscar nominee, the only Latin American narrative to receive the honor in the Best Foreign Language Film category this year. With masterful visuals recalling the works of Hitchcock and a main character who evokes Almodóvar’s poignant, defiant female protagonists, Una Mujer Fantástica is a portrait of a trans woman against incredible odds, but whose force, spirit, and magic prove ultimately invincible.
The narrative follows Marina (played by the mesmerizing Daniela Vega) mourning the sudden death of her partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Her grief is instantly sidelined for a deeper scrutiny over the love she had for Orlando and the motives she would have to end his life by hospital personnel and a detective who treat her as a person of interest in his death, a situation that highlights the prejudice and lack of sensitivity facing the transgender community. You’re not normal and clearly only by his side to satiate his perversion in exchange for money. Le has puesto una trampa. (You’ve set him a trap.) Todo ha sido fríamente calculado. (It’s all been planned in cold blood).
What’s most painful to Marina, however, is that Orlando’s family prohibits her from participating in the wake and funeral services, all in the name of “respect” and “family values.” Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) meets her for the first time in an office parking lot, an anonymous encounter presumably due to Sonia’s embarrassment, and Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) barges into the apartment Marina shared with his father saying that it belongs to him as he’s a real family member. Sonia resorts to verbal abuse, telling Marina she doesn’t know what to call her, whether “him,” “her,” or what she finally settles for: “Chimera,” a monster in Greek mythology. Bruno, on the other hand, taunts Marina with both physical and verbal assault, hostile behavior that reaches its climax in a horrific altercation he orchestrates to prove that he can humiliate Marina and reduce her to nothing.
In spite of the unjust treatment, Marina brushes this and similar experiences off. She sees every confrontation as a window of opportunity to showcase her best self. She’s a woman who lives life to the fullest, knows that it can be sad, even unfair, but that the perfect antidote for injustice is humor. With pride, dignity, and grace Marina captures the resilience of a woman in the face of adversity.
Moments of deep alienation and loneliness overwhelm Marina, but director Lelio masterfully contrasts those instances with bursts of surreal fantasy, for example in a perfectly choreographed electro pop dancing number with talented gay dancers in beautiful tinsel jackets. During this fantastical sequence, Marina is front and center as the sole heroine rising above it all, finding her place in this new world, without Orlando.
What happens when a loved one dies? What to do with the love we had for them? How to fill that void left behind? Your sense of self changes, but how to cope? How to mourn? Marina’s answer, one that finds her gathering enough courage and strength, is resorting to her talent: singing. From her flirtatious rendition of Héctor Lavoe’s “Periódico de Ayer” to her sublime performances of Italian operas “Sposa Son Disprezzata” and “Ombra Mai Fue,” Marina once again rises from the ashes to be born anew.
Una Mujer Fantástica is the most visible narrative fiction film that features a transgender actress this year. The last time this happened was in 2015 with Sean Baker’s groundbreaking Tangerine, a story about the friendship between two trans women as they navigate the rises and falls of living in Los Angeles. But these cases shouldn’t be sparse. It is now time to showcase trans stories, with actual transgender actors and actresses incarnating three-dimensional characters with empathy and hope. With Lelio’s new film, he points a new direction with an engrossing character study of Marina. She endures unthinkable transgressions with vulnerability and resilience, allowing to reclaim her power. It’s a true delight to see empowering portrayals of those, who like Marina, are marginalized. Marina proudly proves that she will no longer remain on the fringes. She has a voice, and she is here to stay.
Una Mujer Fantástica premieres in theaters on Friday, February 2nd in New York and Los Angeles, with plans for a nationwide expansion later this month.
Luis Luna works at the Futuro Media Group, producers of Latino USA, In The Thick, America By The Numbers and Humanizing America. after working in the Theatrical Department at GKIDS. He has also worked on the programming teams at various film festivals, including Hamptons International Film Festival, Brooklyn Film Festival, and others. He received a dual B.A. in Film Studies and English from Hunter College. Born and raised in Jackson Heights, his favorite things include queer cinema, world travel, dancing to Rihanna, and a good cemita. Follow Luis on Twitter @luarmanyc.