Susan Granger’s review of “A Fantastic Woman” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Filmmaker Sebastian Lelio examines the emotional stigma of transgender in this sensitive, Oscar-winning Chilean film.
In Santiago, Martina Vidal (Daniela Vega) and Orlando Onetto (Francisco Reyes) are in love. She’s a young waitress/cabaret singer; he’s 20 years older, the owner of a printing company.
After celebrating Martina’s birthday one evening, Orlando becomes ill, suffering a fatal aneurysm. Martina rushes him to the emergency room, but he dies on the operating table.
Instead of being able to mourn her loss, grieving Martina is suddenly viewed with distrust because of her sexual identity. To the hospital staff and police, she’s a suspicious person. To Orlando’s family, she’s perverted because she’s a trans woman.
A detective, Adriana Cortes (Amparo Noguera), subsequently visits Martina at the restaurant where she works, explaining that she’s from the Sexual Offenses Unit.
“Was he paying you?” she asks.
“We were a couple,” Martina answers truthfully, adding, “It was a healthy, consensual relationship between two adults.”
As bitter conflict erupts, she is forbidden to attend his funeral, and Orlando’ grown son (Niccolas Saavedra) confiscates their dog, threatening to evict her from the flat she shared with his father. At issue is the fact that Martina is still considered, legally, a man.
Perhaps Orlando’s estranged wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) best epitomizes our patriarchal society’s ignorance and confusion, noting, “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing.”
Charismatic Daniela Vega delivers an anguished, transcendent performance. Discovered by Sebastian Lelio (“Gloria”) as a LGBTQ “cultural consultant,” she convinced him that he needed a transgender actor.
“Her uniqueness pushed the script further,” Lelio clarifies. “I was trying to make the script to be as complex as she was.”
As it turns out, Daniela Vega is the first transgender protagonist, propelling Chile’s first-ever Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Fantastic Woman” is an empathetic, ethically compelling 8, tender and well-timed.