Mark Reviews Movies

A Fantastic Woman


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sebastián Lelio

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

MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assult)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 11/17/17 (limited); 2/2/18 (wider); 2/9/18 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 8, 2018

Funerals aren't for the dead. They're for the living. This is a sentiment that is so obvious that we take it for granted. A funeral is a ritual so engrained in our collective conscious that we don't really think about the rationale behind it.

What's the purpose of a funeral? Well, there's the sentimental side of saying a final good-bye. There's the notion of allowing the family of a deceased person to see the influence of their loved one through the presence and stories of others.

There's a lot to it, really, and so much of it is emotional and psychological that we kind of ignore the pragmatic side of it. Death is real, but it is also somewhat unreal as a concept. This is particularly true, say, of the death of a loved one whose time does not seem ready to come. All deaths are, in some way, unexpected, because we cannot entirely process the idea of losing a person forever while the person is still alive. There's a pragmatic side, then, to funerals. It makes the death of a person real. It's not just about closure. It's about acknowledging the fact of someone's death. You can say that someone is dead, but until you actually see the body, the fact of death is not quite a reality.

The plot of A Fantastic Woman is all about seeing the body. This concept is, at its heart, a fundamental requirement in the process of grieving. How can grieving truly begin if the reality of someone's death remains unattainable?

At the core of the story, that is the only thing that Marina (Daniela Vega) wants—to see the body of her lover, who dies suddenly, unexpectedly, and outside of her view. On a primal level, this is the basic right of anyone who loves another person. To deny it to someone is to deny that person of a lot—the capacity to see reality, the ability to grieve, the chance to say a final farewell, the opportunity to see the scope of a loved one's life through other people.

A funeral is for the living, and to deny a person the underlying emotional and psychological components of a funeral is tantamount to suggesting that the person isn't one of the living. A person denied the basic decency and dignity of attending a loved one's funeral might as well be dead in the eyes of those who would deny something so simple yet so vital.

The film, co-written and directed by Sebastián Lelio, features a series of similar denials of the dignity, the worthiness of basic decency, and the fundamental humanity of its central character. Marina is a transgender woman. This is, in the eyes of so many of the other characters, a crime, whether they would say such a thing directly or not. Her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) has died, and even though the two were about to move in together and were planning a vacation, she is treated with open suspicion, barely hidden hostility, and threats of violence, simply because she is the person she is.

Marina is refused access to see Orlando in the hospital. When a staff member at the hospital presses her on her identity, he insists on calling her by the name she had before she transitioned.

The police assume one of two things: that she had something to do with his death, since he fell down some stairs after suffering an aneurysm, or that she was somehow coerced into or abused during her relationship with Orlando, since he was a few decades her senior. The first assumption treats her as a criminal without any evidence. The second presumes that Marina is somehow incapable of being in a "normal" and loving relationship, simply because she is transgender. Both possibilities are inherently insulting: Either Marina is a criminal, or she is a victim. There is nothing in between those two states of guilt or victimhood. A humiliating scene, in which the police photograph Marina's naked body to document any bruises, is the result.

Orlando's family is even more open in their prejudice. His ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) sees Marina as the consequence of some "sick" phase that Orlando was going through, and she deems Marina as even worse than that. The ex-wife's first scene with Marina, in which the lover is returning Orlando's car to the ex, is one of forced politeness on Sonia's part. It's chilling to witness that veil in place as the scene is happening—seeing Marina come to accept the civility as honest and waiting for the façade to fall.

Meanwhile, Orlando's son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) is preparing to evict Marina from his father's apartment. He doesn't even bother with the fake niceties. The only family member with any kindness is Orlando's brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), who still does only little to help Marina in any meaningful way.

The obstacles to Marina's search for simple closure are infuriating in their uselessness and their cruelty. The film sees the prejudice against Marina in actions as overt as an assault and in statements as subtle as the tone of a question. Lelio and Gonzalo Maza's screenplay provides more than a study of prejudice, though. It's a study of grief under impossible circumstances, in which the need to grieve is rendered impossible because of those circumstances.

It's also a showcase for Vega, a transgender actress whose performance feels equally authentic in the reactions to those signs of prejudice and in the primal need to find even the most basic semblance of closure. Hers is a strong, daring, and transparent performance, and it anchors A Fantastic Woman in a way that cuts through politics and prejudice.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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