Marina (Daniela Vega), the transgender title character in director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio’s compassionate, moving drama “A Fantastic Woman,” is first seen singing in a nightclub. Her boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), has just arrived and his smile as he watches her perform indicates just how smitten he is. The couple soon head off for a birthday dinner, dancing at a nightclub, and sex in his apartment.
The next morning, though, Orlando wakes up feeling uneasy, and he dies shortly after Marina takes him to the hospital. It is a sudden and shocking death, made far more hideous by the way doctors, police, and Orlando’s family treat Marina in its wake. Apparently, no one can — or wants to — believe that Orlando and Marina were two consenting adults having a healthy relationship.
“A Fantastic Woman,” which just snagged a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination, shrewdly portrays the aggressions, micro and otherwise, Marina experiences as a trans woman. The doctor at the hospital treats her like a criminal. She is asked for ID and addressed by her male legal name because her paperwork has not been updated. Orlando’s brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco), seems to be trying to understand, yet silently he views the fact of Orlando dating a trans woman half his age as a delicate matter. Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) is particularly offensive toward Marina, as is his son, Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), who is anxious to evict her from his father’s apartment and take her pet dog.
Marina is barely given the opportunity to properly grieve her loss of Orlando, yet she faces the onslaught of humiliations with dignity. Vega’s performance is especially notable for how she just stares at Sonia with an expression that can best be described as incredulous as the ex-wife makes a series of insulting remarks about Marina’s “perversion” and lack of a “normal life.” Their encounter culminates with Sonia’s insensitive and emphatic directive that Marina not even think about attending the wake or funeral. Watching Marina silently absorb the shock of this exchange is harrowing, but also inspiring.
“A Fantastic Woman” features a sequence where a detective, Adriana Cortes (Amparo Noguera), requires Marina to undergo a physical examination as part of her investigation into Orlando’s death. As she undresses behind a screen, Cortes explains to the male medical examiner that a trans woman should be called by her female name, but the scene is so clinical and awkward that viewers will feel the immense discomfort Marina is experiencing. Late in the film, Bruno, calling Marina a “faggot,” physically assaults her.
Lelio does give his protagonist and the audience a few bouts of relief. There is a stunning nightclub scene featuring Marina in snazzy clothes leading a group of dancers in a choreographed routine, but it is a flight of fantasy fabulousness — a perhaps too-familiar trope in queer- and female-centric melodramas (“Living Out Loud” and “Precious” offering other examples). Another moment of magical realism, in which Marina literally walks headstrong against a harsh wind, is apt, though perhaps heavy-handed. “A Fantastic Woman” is better at the subtler scenes of Marina having visions of Orlando that trigger fond memories.
To Lelio’s credit, the film does a very good job at establishing Marina’s character. A scene of her responding “You don’t ask that” to the question of whether she’s had gender reassignment surgery is a moment of sensitive grace. And a scene of Marina, naked, with her face reflected in a hand mirror positioned in her crotch is a warm and beautiful moment. Even a running bit that has Marina taking out her pent-up aggression on punching bags never gets old.
Watching Marina regain her strength and purpose is what makes “A Fantastic Woman” so rewarding. A subplot involving a key Orlando left behind delivers an unexpected payoff, allowing Marina to confront his family in a scene at once funny, scary, and empowering.
Vega is terrific in the film’s larger than life moments, but she is actually best when she underplays her role. She lends depth and shading to her character when Marina responds to her boss describing her as “mysterious” and as she sizes herself up in a larger mirror carried by movers who cross her path.
The last scene of “A Fantastic Woman,” with Marina singing an operatic aria on stage (Vega is a trained mezzo-soprano), is a moment of transcendent passion and emotion. Despite some soap opera turns, the film is always respectful and perceptive. And it is a fabulous showcase for Vega’s many talents.
A FANTASTIC WOMAN | Directed by Sebastián Lelio | Sony Pictures Classics | In Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Feb. 2 | Cinépolis Chelsea, 260 W. 23rd St.; cinapolisu