Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) is a 20-something singer living in Santiago, Chile. She moonlights as a waitress in between singing in bars and training for a classical performance. At the beginning of “A Fantastic Woman” (nominated as Chile’s entry for the Academy Awards’ best foreign language film,) her much older boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes) awakens suddenly in the night, dying after she takes him to the hospital. It’s there that the real struggle begins for her, as her gender identity comes under attack from seemingly everyone she comes into contact with, and Marina spends the rest of the movie fighting just to be seen as a woman by everyone else.
It’s a smart move on director Sebastian Lelio to withhold this, even though all synopses of the film mention Marina being a trans woman. Because she passes so effortlessly, it’s jarring to hear a police officer suddenly begin misgendering her when he sees her driver’s license, even though he was perfectly fine before that using feminine pronouns.
Orlando’s death doesn’t stop his estranged family from considering her an affront and an insult to them. His ex-wife makes her give his car back while not-so-subtly implying she should stay away from his funeral and wake. His son wants her out of the apartment she shared with Orlando, and appears disgusted by her. The only one who even considers her an actual woman is his brother, but his meek support doesn’t help when she’s thrown out of his wake, being told with no sense of irony “Have you no respect for the grieving?”
As portrayed by Vega (a trans woman herself,) Marina is strong, dedicated and forthright, taking careful steps to not offend even as she suffers a torrent of abuse. Even so, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed that we get so few details of her and Orlando’s relationship: their scenes are warm and caring, and from the small snatches we get in conversation, they were together at least a year before his death.
Because Marina is so internal it can feel as though she’s not really projecting much at all, but she truly shines in the scenes when she’s singing, and there’s a sense that she’s holding back as much as possible to keep from fighting people.
In some ways, “A Fantastic Woman” is a necessary film; trans persons still deal with so much bigotry that just the act of existing and refusing to be stopped counts as acts of rebellion. One can imagine the film made where Marina was just allowed the right to grieve, same as anyone else, and those parts are as powerful as any.
Still, the film itself bristles with humanity and small moments of magical realism — such as a wind storm that stops her in her tracks as if she is fighting it, a blunt if relevant symbol — making the case that despite her past, Marina is nothing less than a magnificent, fantastic woman, no matter what bigots may argue.