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Chile Takes Home First Foreign Film Oscar For ‘A Fantastic Woman’

Transgender actress Daniela Vega makes history at Academy Awards show

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classic

Daniela Vega's Marina enjoys an escape from reality in "A Fantastic Woman," which just won the best foreign film Oscar on Sunday.

Companion viewing

"The Crying Game" (1992)

"Boys Don't Cry" (1999)

"Tangerine" (2015)

Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman” just won the Academy Award for best foreign film on Sunday and actress Daniela Vega became the first openly transgender presenter at the Oscars.

“A Fantastic Woman” opens with what seems like a perfect night. Orlando (Francisco Reyes) arrives at a club to watch his girlfriend Marina (Daniela Vega) sing. They catch each other’s eye and we sense that they share a quiet intimacy. After the show they celebrate her birthday at a Chinese restaurant and head back to his apartment to make love. But later that night Orlando wakes up feeling strange and collapses. Marina rushes him to the hospital but the doctors can do nothing and explain that he has died of an aneurysm.

Orlando was decades older than her and had a life previous to the one he shared with her. So Marina has to face an ex-wife and children that deeply resent how Orlando left them for her. Their hostility is intensified by their prejudice against Marina as a transgender woman.

“A Fantastic Woman” is specifically about Marina trying to process her grief as her lover’s family attempts to cut her out of the funeral. But it is also a film that addresses larger issues about the transgender community in Chile.

Sebastián Lelio resorts to some contrivances and heavy-handedness in depicting the prejudice Marina faces. There is no doubt that transgender people face prejudice, discrimination and abuse in Chile, but Lelio scripts his film in a manner that forces those things into the forefront in calculated ways. The fact that Orlando left his family for a younger woman gives them a justifiable reason for resenting her, but they choose to express that resentment in the form of cruel and, at one point, violent intolerance. And Marina sets herself up for problems with the police by lying about the fact that Orlando fell down a flight of stairs after his collapse thus sustaining some suspicious bruises and injuries. This allows a female police officer to bring Marina in and subject her to some humiliating inquiries and examinations.

But if the plotting is sometimes obvious, Lelio counters that with delicate compassion for Marina’s situation and insight into her character. Orlando’s family may come across as caricatures, but Marina is always real and honest.

Lelio keeps the camera on her almost constantly and insists that everything is from her point of view, a point of view that is all too rarely seen on film. That point of view includes occasional moments of surrealism as we see Marina walking into a gale force wind and eventually finding herself unable to move forward, which symbolizes how she feels as she fights Orlando’s family and stereotypes. Another time we see her cutting loose in a dance scene in a club where she gets to enjoy a brief escape into fantasy.

It’s moments like those that help convey Marina’s interior life and allow her to be the most nuanced and richly developed of the characters in the film. That contrasts with the way transgender characters are often portrayed in the mainstream, where they are usually made to be minor characters or reduced to stereotypes.

“A Fantastic Woman” clearly wants to show a trans character in a compassionate and humanistic light. It may even dare to aspire to advocate for change in Chile. After winning the Oscar on Sunday, the film’s key creators were invited by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to the presidential palace where she hoped to use the film’s victory as a means to help pass transgender-rights laws in the country.

Films may not be able to change the world, but they can shine a spotlight on issues and encourage greater understanding by simply depicting a point of view that we do not often get to see.

Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman” just won the Academy Award for best foreign film on Sunday and actress Daniela Vega became the first openly transgender presenter at the Oscars.

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