How Chile's Oscar Submission Shows the Dogged Humanity of 'A Fantastic Woman'

Sebastian Lelio's follow-up to his widely acclaimed 'Gloria' has drawn comparisons to Kimberly Peirce's groundbreaking 'Boys Don't Cry' and the work of queer cinema icons Pedro Almodovar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chile's A Fantastic Woman is that in a feature centered on a transgender woman struggling for identity, there's not a single line of advocacy or political cant. Sebastian Lelio's follow-up to his widely acclaimed Gloria has drawn comparisons to Kimberly Peirce's groundbreaking Boys Don't Cry as well as the work of queer cinema icons Pedro Almodovar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But A Fantastic Woman easily stands on its own as a resonant and empathetic treatment of the transgender experience as one part of the human whole.

The drama, which premiered in Berlin, where it won best screenplay honors for Lelio and co-writer Gonzalo Maza and the Teddy Award for best queer feature, is set in the Chilean capital of Santiago and follows Marina, a young waitress and aspiring singer (played by transgender actress Daniela Vega) and her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes). The pair have just moved in together when Orlando suddenly falls sick and dies. But instead of being able to mourn, Marina is treated with suspicion from all sides: Doctors and police think she may have been responsible for Orlando's death, and his family — including his ex-wife and son — treat her as an invader and see her sexual identity as a perversion.

Lelio met Vega while writing the script, and the actress initially served as a consultant on the project. "I didn't have any transgender friends, so I wanted to see who was out there, particularly in Santiago, in Chile," says Lelio. "Then I suddenly realized she needed to be the main actress."

The trans-as-trans casting of Vega has drawn praise from the LGBTQ community, which has taken transgender projects like The Danish Girl and TV's Transparent to task for giving trans roles to cisgender actors. But Vega's Marina, who is determined to live according to her own rules, transcends the political. "We are obsessed with frontiers, with walls, with labels and limits. It could be so much more expansive, loving and simpler in a way — more free," says Lelio of the central theme of A Fantastic Woman, which has an Oscar-qualifying run starting Nov. 17 before its wide release via Sony Pictures Classics on Feb. 2.

The director points to Marina's dog as the only character that doesn't have any problem with her identity. "He's more human than the rest," he adds. "I think that is such a pity, but at the same time there is great hope in that. Because if a dog can be human, then we can also be human."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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