Sebastián Lelio’s Chilean masterpiece Una mujer fantástica (2017) – A Fantastic Woman – is essential viewing, presenting a stunning cinematic journey into a frustratingly unexplored territory. Traversing a landscape of love and loss through the experience of a young transgender woman, the film confronts the injustice experienced by the trans community through a story of compassion and honesty. Female lead Marina – played by Chilean’s first openly trans actress Daniela Vega – is discriminated against after a sudden personal tragedy and Lelio’s narrative presents the modern-day issues she experiences in her attempts to grieve and move on.

Marina and her older partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes Morandé) are madly in love: she is in the process of moving into his apartment and they are looking forward to a trip abroad. Everything about their relationship reveals one of permanence – strengthened by mutual respect, adoration and desire. Lelio focuses on the compassion between the couple, their romantic aura mirrored by the gorgeous cinematography of vivid, mesmerising colours as they slow dance together. After drunkenly returning to their home and falling asleep after having sex, Orlando wakes during the night to feelings of nausea. Seemingly healthy, the quick decline into delirium panics Marina who desperately attempts to transport her ailing partner to hospital. But, despite all her efforts, Orlando is pronounced dead from a brain aneurysm and Marina’s world is catapulted into one of heartache.

But her journey with grief is continually hindered by those around her. Lelio explores the varying societal degrees of transphobia Marina experiences in the wake of Orlando’s death, from the microaggressions of hospital staff to the relatives of Orlando’s deep-rooted prejudice. On an institutional level, state officials and doctors instantaneously manipulate the tragic set of unforeseen circumstances regarding Orlando’s death into one of foul play – his body, covered in bruises due to accidentally stumbling downstairs whilst Marina was preoccupied with locking their apartment, is framed as proof. Doctors are hesitant, resistant or disdainful towards Marina, who frighteningly runs away from the hospital to avoid unwanted conflict but is soon subjected to questioning. The female’s status as a transgender female affects people’s perceptions of her relationship, with Detective Adriana Cortes (Amparo Noguera) from the Investigations Police’s Sexual Offenses Unit condescendingly making presumptions upon appearance. ‘I know very well what happens with people… sorry, with women like you. Because I’ve seen it all […] Did you have to defend yourself from him?’, refusing to believe Marina’s justified explanations.  

On an individual level, Orlando’s ex-wife and estranged children are determined to alienate Marina from her former relationship. Bombarding her with transphobic abuse – including a deeply upsetting physical and verbal assault after Orlando’s funeral – they reject Marina’s need to grieve her partner’s death. Barring her from his funeral, apartment and stealing their co-owned dog, she is forced to internalise her mourning. Yet, despite such experiences, she is beautifully self-assured in her status as both a transgender woman and ultimately a human being. She refuses to accept or acknowledge how other’s prejudice should prevent her from experiencing both love and loss, and continually fights to mourn Orlando as others are. 

Simultaneously, against such injustice, the film also showcases the supportive relationships and experiences Marina has from those around her.Tender moments of compassion from her own family members counteract the barbaric nature of Orlando’s relatives. Coworkers at her restaurant, her singing teacher and a loving bond with her sister are powerful signifiers of her rightful acceptance and place within society, rejecting other’s unfair dismissal and disapproval. However, Lelio is not incorporating this narrative anthesis to highlight the wrongfulness of people’s transphobia but is instead showcasing how Marina isn’t completely rejected from society: where there is darkness, there is also profound light. 

Yet, ultimately, the most important relationship Marina has is with herself: she is resilient and strong-minded, wandering through the world of grief with admirable courage. As the camera follows Marina walking down the street, her body fighting the increasing wind as she becomes virtually parallel to the pavement, Lelio illustrates her unwavering determination in the face of discrimination. The film’s final sequence offers a stunning conclusion to the protagonist’s difficult journey, one which will move you to tears through its cinematic beauty and resounding message of defiance and power. Vega is a powerhouse of a performance at every turn and this Oscar contender for the best foreign film category is a deserved winner and frankly an unmissable experience.

Dir: Sebastián Lelio

Scr: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza

Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Amparo Noguera, Aline Küppenheim

Prd: Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín, Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza

DOP: Benjamín Echazarreta

Music: Matthew Herbet

Country: Chile

Year: 2017

Runtime: 104 minutes

A Fantastic Woman is in cinemas today.