Trans Issues at the Center of the New Oscar-Winning Film "A Fantastic Woman"
"I want my dog," Marina screams, as she jumps onto her dead boyfriend's ex-wife's car. Marina has been thrown out of her boyfriend Orlando's apartment, criminally investigated by the authorities, and barred from her boyfriend's funeral after his quick, unexpected death. And after suffering all these indignities, she's had it; she jumps onto the car, so she can be acknowledged in a world that refuses to see her for who she is: a transgender woman who is just trying to live her life in peace. This powerful image is just one of the many stunning moments that make the movie A Fantastic Woman such a rousing success.
I have to confess that prior to seeing this movie, I did not know much about the transgender experience. I had maybe read a few articles about the trans civil rights movement, and had followed Caityln Jenner's coming-out with great enthusiasm. But besides that, I was pretty clueless. Watching A Fantastic Woman opened my eyes to the difficulties and harassment trans individuals face on a daily basis. The director does a great job of using actions and creating incidents to show these struggles. In one scene, a policeman questioning Marina refuses to call her by her female name. Another scene shows Marina being thrown into a car, taped up, and then tossed into a random alley. These powerful actions and incidents that are the lifeblood of this film reveal the character's struggle more deeply than any amount of mere words could ever do, and in turn inspire great compassion from the audience.
And Daniela Vega breathes life into these scenes with her simple, powerful acting choices. Instead of employing over-the-top antics and tears, Vega delivers an understated performance, keeping all her pain and frustration boiling just beneath the surface. This restraint draws in the viewer, and keeps us focused on Vega's expressive brown eyes as she goes through each challenge life throws at her. The poise Vega brings to the role of Marina is inspiring. No matter how badly the world treats Marina, she never sacrifices her dignity, and almost always behaves with grace. This grace Vega brings to the role immediately earns the audience's respect, and is a big part of why the film is so successful.
Several other stellar supporting actors surround Vega. Aline Küppenheim turns in a great performance as Orlando's judgmental ex-wife Sonia. She hurls stinging remarks at Marina, and shoots Marina looks that burn with judgment. Küppenheim has one scene with Vega where Marina is returning Orlando's car to Sonia, and their awkward first meeting had the audience's rapt attention. Other notable performances include Nicolás Saavedra as Orlando's cruel son, and Luis Gnecco as Orlando's kind brother, Gabo. Gnecco is wonderful as Gabo, Orlando's only family member that shows any kindness toward Marina. He plays the role with a quiet compassion, which is a welcomed contrast to the cold shoulder Orlando's other relatives give to Marina. His finest moment is when he runs out to comfort Marina at Orlando's funeral, and he shows her kindness in a simple, genuine way that speaks volumes more than any big show of affection ever could.
At the helm of this movie is Sebastián Lelio, who directs the film with imagination and simplicity. What is special about this film is that he does a great job of capturing both the majesty of life, and its smaller, dearer moments. The film opens with a stunning, sweeping shot of the Iguazu Waterfalls, the place where Orlando intends to take Marina before his unexpected death. The waterfall symbolizes the greatness and power of Marina and Orlando's love for one another, and the shot of it wows the audience as they enter Marina's world. Lelio balances these cinematic moments with smaller ones that are just as captivating. He shows us Marina and Orlando dancing together closely on her birthday, and also shows Marina staring into the black abyss of Orlando's empty gym locker after he has died. That Lelio is able to portray both the grand and tender little moments of life is impressive, and gives the movie its great emotional power.
The film is also a feast for the eyes. A Fantastic Woman shows the best Santiago, Chile (the film's setting) has to offer, depicting its golden sunlight, lush cypress trees, and charming alleyways with style and flair. Even the city walls' scratches and scrapes, flying like a swarm of bees across the limestone, look beautiful when set against the blue Chilean sky. Lelio has an eye for making the smallest, most ordinary thing look interesting, and this 144-minute vacation to Santiago during this cold March is much welcomed.
At the closing of the film, Marina sings the aria "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's Serse on stage with a string quartet. Her gentle, pure singing voice and earnest stage presence are touching amidst all the harassment and grief she faces throughout the movie. Marina sings in a black dress against a black backdrop, and this simplicity makes you focus not on Marina's appearance or gender, but only on her soaring spirit. The soothing Handel aria gives us hope that there is a happier tomorrow in store for Marina. And like the song, the empathy the movie A Fantastic Woman inspired in the audience gives me hope that we will continue to build a more inclusive, accepting world for trans individuals.
© 2018 Mark Nimar