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Film Review: ‘A Fantastic Woman’ Perseveres Through Prejudice And Suspicion

Dealing with the death of someone you love is difficult enough. It can be infinitely worse if the grief is compounded by the fact that every day of your life is spent seeking acceptance in the world, as is the case in the Oscar-nominated film, “A Fantastic Woman.”

“A Fantastic Woman,” or “Una Mujer Fantástica,” stars Daniela Vega in the role of Marina, who is a transgender woman who works as a waitress in Chile. She is in love with an older gentleman, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), because he accepts her gender identity and treats her as a human being.

Suddenly, one night, Orlando dies. Orlando’s death, and the circumstances around it, become a vector for highlighting the daily prejudice that Daniela faces in Chile. She is automatically viewed as a suspect, and Orlando’s family does everything they can to make her ashamed that she was in a relationship with Orlando.

Screenwriter and director Sebastián Lelio told Sight & Sound magazine the story originally came from the question: “What would happen if the person you loved died in your arms?” He imagined others might blame you. Then, they wondered: “What if this happened to a transgender woman?”

Lelio met transgender women in Chile, eventually found Vega, and she not only was cast in the main role of the film but also advised the director on further development of the script so it reflected authentic examples of prejudicial awkwardness and blatant discrimination.

Following Orlando’s death, the authorities do not care about how she is handling the tragedy. They immediately criminalize her, refuse to call her Marina, and refer to her as a man because she does not have identification that reflects who she is now.

The film was produced in January and February 2016. It was made before Chile’s Senate passed a landmark bill, the Gender Identity Recognition and Protection Bill, which trans activists campaigned for so a person could change their name and gender marker in government documents.

Michel Riquelme, a trans activist for Organizando Trans Diversidades (OTD Chile), notes Chile has employed a process where “two witnesses must state that the solicitant” has used their new name for 5 years, at least. To change one’s gender marker, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder must be confirmed through psychological or psychiatric evaluation. Legal medical services may perform a “medical sexological examination and assessment,” and certain courts may ask for a DNA test or that the “solicitant undergo sterilization and genital modification surgeries.”

The bill is not law in Chile yet, but it has made it through several critical stages. While it avoids addressing discrimination against transgender children, it moves away from the dehumanizing process that sees all transgender adults as perverts, which is a dominant prejudice in Lelio’s film.

Such legislative advancement represents some of the cultural shift in the past two years. Worldwide, including the United States, representations in media, including television and film, have accelerated the process of accepting transgender persons. Battles over allowing transgender persons to use whichever bathroom they want have been fought and decided in favor of transgender rights.

Nevertheless, there is little reason to believe the senselessness and banality of prejudice gorgeously captured in “Una Mujer Fantástica” does not persist. Or that society would not immediately consider Marina a suspect to resolve questions about a tragic event.

Lelio’s magnificently blends cinematic conventions to craft a trans-genre film. He told Sight & Sound the open is like a mid-1950s romance film. It then “flirts with thriller, becomes a ghost movie, and then a detective story.” Finally, it develops into a modern-day character study.

There are several ways in which Lelio uses the camera to communicate the pain and rage that is welling up inside of Marina. He also is able to capture Marina’s drive to assert her basic human rights.

One convention involves mirrors. There is a large mirror carried out in public, like something out of a Buster Keaton film. There is the glass in storefronts. There is the mirror in the bathroom. There is the mirror placed delicately between Marina’s legs. In each example, her face is reflects back at her.

Not only is society struggling to accept Marina, but the stark hatred among citizens impacts her ability to accept herself. She struggles with whether she is enough of a woman and when life as a woman will come naturally to her.

If films are machines of empathy, “Una Mujer Fantástica” is a film that wields classic aesthetics of cinema to humanize a character historically humiliated or caricatured on screen. It evokes sorrow, anguish, and sometimes bittersweet joy. It transcends geography, even though it is set in Chile.

Because at its core, it is a universal story about the right to love and be loved, and why anyone—in this case, Marina—should have to endure so much hate to merely exist.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."