Review by Tom Cooney
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Nicolás Saavedra and Aline Küppenheim
A Fantastic Woman is a film that covers many topics, ranging from grief and judgement to love and family. Despite its broad spectrum of thematic ground, Sebastián Lelio’s feature is as anchored as a film can be – and that is entirely attributable to Daniela Vega’s Marina Vidal. Marina is a young singer in a relationship with an older man, when his quick and unexpected death forces her down a path of accusations and abuse – as she is constantly, brutally targeted for being a transgender woman. It is an infuriating but vital watch, exposing how certain people will use any opportunity to attack someone who doesn’t fit into their ignorantly idealistic mould. However, what this film expertly conveys is not the wearing down of Marina, but the ever-growing strength that rises out of her struggle.
It is undoubtedly Daniela Vega’s electrifying performance that imbues Marina with this strength. She dominates every shot in which she appears, carrying the film from her first scene to the last. Unbelievably, Vega came onto the project not as an actress but as a script consultant, being a transgender woman herself. It was only as the screenwriting process ended that Lelio and his co-writer realised that Vega herself was perfect for the role. The film benefits massively from this decision, hopefully marking the beginning of a long career for the actress.
While Vega may be the star of the show, Lelio’s direction and Benjamín Echazarreta’s cinematography elevate A Fantastic Woman higher still. Throughout the film, Marina is framed centrally, with her facial close-ups only extenuating her unmatched screen presence. It is when the film takes its momentary breaks from reality that Lelio and Echazarreta truly shine, though. In one such scene, Marina walks against a breeze that builds so ferociously it becomes almost impossible for her to move forward. Through the sudden tornado of leaves and litter that hurtle towards Marina, we are shown the fight that she has to face against the judgement and abuse of her tormentors. It is but one use of pertinent imagery in the film, deepening the movie-going experience for its audience.
At this year’s Academy Awards, Daniela Vega – introducing Sufjan Stevens – became the ceremony’s first ever openly transgender presenter, and A Fantastic Woman took home the award for Best Foreign Language Film. While a deservedly triumphant night for the film and its star, these moments are also important milestones for the film industry and society at large. They represent a time of change and acceptance, the assurance that everyone’s story is worth telling, and the hope that the world is filled not with the ignorance of this film’s antagonists, but with the unwavering strength of its fantastic woman.