There are actors and there are stars, and Chile’s Daniela Vega is a lot of both in the Oscar-nominated “A Fantastic Woman.” It’s a stunning performance of pulsating power. But more than a personal triumph, Vega establishes a milestone in the push for equality playing a transgender woman determined to properly grieve for her recently deceased lover.
In what should be easy and just, her Marina, a 27-year-old aspiring opera singer, is cruelly and continually thwarted by the dead man’s bigoted family and a Chilean bureaucracy that treats her like a common criminal. Remarkably, Marina never veers from her quest; not out of some grand social or political statement, but out of genuine love for the man who was her rock.
As a result, your empathy soars because Vega demands it with a full-on display of charisma and strength. It’s as if she actually becomes Marina. That’s how much of herself she brings to the character. Her fight is Vega’s fight in a real-world war against prejudice and discrimination. And like with all great movie heroines she strikes a nerve, earning our respect and winning our support in her fight for dignity.
Like every fantastic woman there’s an equally fabulous man behind her. That would be director Sebastian Lelio, a fellow Chilean who made a splash in 2013 with his first international hit, “Gloria,” also about a woman grievously marginalized by society. But his growth since then is stunning, particularly in his ability to place us under Marina’s skin. It allows us to not just experience his movie, but feel it; making it a call to arms against hatred of all kinds. Even more improved is Lelio’s storytelling, as he and his “Gloria” co-writer Gonzalo Maza compile a gripping scenario that is more than just about empowerment. It’s about humanity and a person’s right to live their life however they want, the system be damned.
It gets to you, particularly Marina being denied the right to say goodbye to the one man who accepted and cherished her for who she is. And the irony is palpable, as Lelio effectively contrasts her battle to mourn against that of the man’s repulsive ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) and son (Nicolas Saavedra), who both suddenly — and shamelessly — take an interest in him only when it comes time to divvy up the large inheritance. Yes, it’s the stuff of old-fashioned melodrama, but Lelio knows how to sell it.
He also knows how to cast an actor as indelible as Francisco Reyes to play Marina’s one great love, 57-year-old Santiago businessman, Orlando. He’s only around for the first 10 minutes or so before he’s felled by an aneurysm, but it’s enough to know how deeply Orlando feels for Marina despite the significant gaps in their age, income and social standing. It’s such a durable impression that you sense Orlando’s presence the rest of the movie; although I could have done without seeing his ghostly image regularly appear to Marina when she’s at her lowest.
It’s almost as wincing as when he queues up Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” on Marina’s car radio. It’s embarrassingly on the nose, marring an otherwise excellent soundtrack featuring an evocative score by Matthew Herbert and a terrific use of the haunting “Time” by The Alan Parsons Project. But those are the lone missteps in an otherwise majestic achievement by Lelio, who deserves the highest praise for introducing a talent as large as Vega.
She will be one of the presenters at next month’s Oscar ceremonies, but anyone who sees her act — and sing — in “A Fantastic Woman” will agree she also should be among the nominees. That’s how good she is in a performance that’s not just memorable, it’s brave. As Marina, she’s subjected to one humiliation after another, most notably when she’s forced to strip naked for evidentiary photos by a cop who automatically suspects Marina inflicted the bruises on Orlando’s body, not the tumble he takes when the aneurysm erupts. If she were anyone but a transgender, would the police even be around? Not likely, and in a movie full of disturbing images, that just might be the most upsetting. But Lelio insists on leaving on an up note, and best of all, it’s earned — and like his movie, it’s fantastic.
“A Fantastic Woman”
Cast includes Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Nicolas Saavedra and Aline Kuppenheim.
(R for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault.)