Chile’s Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, “A Fantastic Woman” is one of those movies that derives power from its simplicity, conveying the discrimination against its transgender heroine in a way culls from a long history of such portrayals and yet somehow manages to feel fresh and relevant.
Part of that stems from a tremendous central performance by Daniela Vega, a trans actress and singer who essentially stumbled into the role, having been retained as a consultant before director Sebastian Lelio (who wrote the script with Gonzalo Maza), wisely, decided to cast her.
Conceptually, “A Fantastic Woman” has much in common with the most memorable segment of the 2000 HBO movie “If These Walls Could Talk 2,” which focused on a lesbian, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who, in 1961, faces being disinherited due to the death of her longtime companion, since there was no legal way then to codify the relationship.
Similarly, Vega’s Marina is happily living with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), her significantly older, divorced boyfriend, when he’s suddenly felled by a heart attack. From the moment she takes him to the hospital, she’s met with suspicion from authorities, followed by hostility and bigotry from Orlando’s family, which doesn’t even want her to attend his funeral.
In perhaps the most uncomfortable scene, Marina is questioned regarding the circumstances surrounding Orlando’s death, with the police – pursuing a fishing expedition to unearth foul play – forcing her to disrobe, looking for signs of a struggle.
If some of the beats sound familiar, or even a trifle clichéd, “A Fantastic Woman” avoids those pitfalls, in part because Marina is far from just a passive victim. Her actions, rather, convey not only the pain she experiences but also her strength and independence, gradually filling in the bond that she and Orlando shared while deftly drawing the audience into Marina’s plight.
Although there is something particular in the overt discrimination practiced toward Marina, the movie bridges language and cultural barriers, striking an emotional chord with the universal nature of its themes. It’s worth noting, too, that the small, intimate approach to the story makes this a movie that will play perfectly well on TV, which is where many people will no doubt catch up with it.
Granted, the “fantastic” in the title might sound like indulging a bit of hyperbole. But it comes pretty close to describing a film, and a central performance, that otherwise lose nothing in translation.
“A Fantastic Woman” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Feb. 2 and will expand to other cities in March.