Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio (the acclaimed 2013 movie “Gloria”) has another winner on his hands with “A Fantastic Woman” (Sony Pictures Classics), Academy Award-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Notable for the way it depicts a few days in the life of a trans woman in Santiago, “A Fantastic Woman” is at turns fabulous and heartbreaking.
Marina (trans actress Daniela Vega) is a waitress at a restaurant in an amusement park and arcade in Santiago. Her real ambition is to be a singer and when she isn’t singing nights in another restaurant, she’s training with her vocal coach (Sergio Hernández).
She’s in a loving relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a straight divorcee, who is several years her senior. At dinner in a Chinese restaurant, the night of Marina’s birthday, he presents her with a handwritten IOU “valid for two trips to Iguazu Falls” because he has misplaced the white envelope in which he put the tickets he printed out from his computer after a visit to a sauna.
Back at his apartment, after dinner and drinks, they make love. Orlando wakes up in the middle of the night feeling sick and disoriented. As they leave his apartment to drive to the hospital, he falls downstairs. Arriving at the hospital, with his head banged up and bruises on his body, he’s taken to the emergency room.
The ER doctor is uncomfortable around Marina, unsure how to address her. Regardless, he must deliver the bad news that Orlando has died of an aneurysm. Marina uses Orlando’s phone to call his brother Gabo (Louis Gnecco) and tell him what has happened. Unsure of what to do, Marina leaves the hospital after that.
Because of the condition in which Orlando arrived at the hospital, the police are called to bring her back. There is an awkward scene in which a policeman is questioning her, insisting on using her birth name because her transition is still pending. Fortunately, the sensible Gabo arrives in time to help with the situation.
Gabo is one of the few friendly faces Marina will encounter for a while. Orlando’s ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), still shaken by the divorce, becomes particularly nasty following his death. She’s initially civil to Marina, simply asking for the return of Orlando’s car. However, once they are face to face in the parking garage at Sonia’s office, she takes off the gloves and is cruel and offensive to Marina, even going as far as banning Marina from Orlando’s wake and funeral.
Orlando’s adult son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) is even more vicious. Showing up unannounced at Orlando’s apartment (he has his own key) where Marina is currently living (she was in the process of moving in with Orlando). Bruno stakes his claim to the apartment, as well as to Orlando’s dog Diabla.
Perhaps the worst of Marina’s encounters is with Detective Cortes (Amparo Noguera) of the Sexual Offenses Unit. The insensitive interrogation, which includes questions about their sex life and whether Marina was being paid by Orlando (she tells the detective that they were a couple in “a healthy, consensual relationship between two adults”) is only the beginning. Cortes insists that Marina submit to a physical examination, yet another in a series of degradations she must experience in the midst of her shock and mourning.
All the while, as Marina attempts to hold her life together following Orlando’s death, she is also intent on solving a mystery. She finds a key ring with a key and number disc attached to it. After discovering that the key is to Orlando’s locker at the sauna, Marina pays a visit to the spa, in one of the most powerful scenes in the film.
Without giving away too much, it’s safe to say that Marina emerges triumphant. However, what she has to go through in order to become the fantastic woman that she is is probably more than most people would be able to survive. Rating: A-