At the core of this indelibly moving film – Chile's entry in the Oscar race for Best Foreign-Language feature – is a performance of surpassing beauty and tenderness. Daniela Vega is the first openly transgender actress and model in Chile, and her portrayal of Marina Vidal, a trans woman who works as a waitress in Santiago to support her career as a cabaret singer, signals her as a world-class talent. With such cisgender actors as Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent) and Hillary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) scoring career triumphs in trans roles, it's gratifying to watch Vega seize her moment with such subtle, stirring authenticity.
Vega brings heart and soul to the movie's heroine as she navigates a difficult quest to make the world accept her as she accepts and validates herself – and director/co-writer Sebastián Lelio (Gloria) is with her every step of the way. Our first meeting with Marina shows her at her happiest. Her older boyfriend, 57-year-old Orlando (Francisco Reyes), has just treated Marina to a birthday dinner; she's recently moved into his apartment. Later, in bed, he suffers an aneurysm. His subsequent death, after a fall down the apartment's stairwell, raises suspicions. Not just with the police – a female detective (Amparo Noguera) subjects Marina to a humiliating strip search – but with Orlando's family as well. His brother, Gapo (Luis Gnecco), offers some sympathy. But his ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) and grown son (Nicolás Saavedra) are overtly hostile, forcing someone they think of as Orlando's dirty secret to vacate the premises and using threats to persuade Marina not to attend the funeral.
Vega lets us see a woman who is not given space to express her grief or the compassion to understand its necessity. Lelio goes beyond condemning Marina's tormentors to decrying the patriarchal society that lets hate grow and fester. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta, the movie slides into the surreal as Marina imagines herself in a dance club, a glittering version of the woman she longs to be. Yet in the harsh light of reality, she retains her poise and dignity in a world that wants to rob her of both.
Using Aretha Franklin's "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" on the soundtrack may seem too on-the-nose to express the loss Marina feels with the death of Orlando. But Vega never makes a false move – her portrayal digs deep and leaves you shaken. A Fantastic Woman catches a human being in the challenging and exhilarating process of inventing herself. The result is unique and unforgettable.