Chilean masterpiece A Fantastic Woman is a stirring study of grief, dignity and the trans experience

After deservedly winning Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards (alongside a slew of prestigious accolades on the festival circuit), Sebastián Lelio’s powerful transgender drama finally reaches our shores in limited release at Golden Village and The Projector. And if it’s Oscar triumph isn’t enough to convince you to give this sublime film a chance in the theatres, perhaps this review might nudge you in the right direction.

A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica) begins in Santiago, Chile with Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a committed couple in a very loving relationship. But after a romantic birthday celebration, the elder gentleman is gravely stricken with an aneurysm before passing away suddenly. And as if this wasn’t already a devastating enough turn, her lover’s death would only be the start of a series of upsetting events for the distraught Marina.

As a transgender woman, Marina finds that everything she does is called into question by a callous society. Her genuine relationship with Orlando is doubted by the doctors at the hospital. The police are suspicious of her role in Orlando’s death. And even her right to grieve for the man she loved is denied by Orlando’s estranged family. Our vérité journey with Marina sees her encountering a string of discourtesies and humiliations over the next few days.

Every interaction finds her slurred, demeaned, and even threatened. The tranquil privacy and soft neon of the film’s comforting early scenes die along with Orlando, as the harsh light of the wider world intrudes to challenge her very existence. At one point, the joyless business of tidying up affairs necessitates an encounter with Orlando’s embittered ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), whose thin facade of civility quickly crumbles into forthright disgust.

“When I look at you,” she says brusquely, “I don’t know what I’m seeing.”

Despite Marina’s circumstances, Lelio’s naturalistic narrative avoids the caricatures of grief or the heavy-handed messages of prejudice, in favour of a more nuanced character study of loss and defiance in the face of indignity. While many filmmakers might indulge in oppression porn with a premise such as this, Lelio is careful to pepper Marina’s unexpected journey with instances of hope and decency. Kind exchanges with Marina’s music teacher, and even Orlando’s surprisingly understanding brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco), offer glimmers of humanity.

A Fantastic Woman also flourishes with vibrant sequences of magical realism. A nightclub rave turns into a hallucinatory dance sequence set to techno. A stylized tracking shot of Marina powering through hurricane-level winds in the streets presents us with gorgeous symbolism. In particular, the film makes liberal use of mirrors as metaphors for identity, sexuality and bereavement, with several beautifully composed reflection shots during key scenes.

Anchoring this immersive odyssey is a powerhouse performance from transgender actress Daniela Vega. Despite possessing little to no prior acting experience, Vega absolutely astonishes here, drawing upon her real-life experiences to express subtle layers of vulnerability, boldness, warmth and concealed fury. This heartfelt tale of otherness, as artful as it may be, would never have been as compelling without Vega’s magnetism onscreen, and her insightful perspective behind it.

Rating: 9/10