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'A Fantastic Woman' Is As Strong And Complicated As Its Star

When Orlando (Francisco Reyes) enters a rooftop supper-club in Santiago at the beginning of the film, he can't take his eyes off Marina (Daniela Vega), a striking young vocalist who's crooning lyrics about throwing her boyfriend out with the garbage because, she sings, his love "is like yesterday's newspaper."

She sings that line straight to Orlando, with a little smile. She's definitely not throwing him away ... she's moving into his apartment as soon as they celebrate her 27th birthday.

But that night, things take a terrible turn. Orlando wakes up feeling ill. Marina rushes him to the hospital, where less than half an hour later, he dies due to an aneurysm.

At that point, Marina's ordeal is only beginning. The doctors who couldn't save Orlando look at Marina in the harsh hospital lighting and begin to treat her as a suspect. A policeman demands to see identification and frowns at the fact that the name on her ID card is "Daniel."

A Fantastic Woman is Chile's submission to this year's Academy Awards, and it'll be one of the five films up for best foreign language film on Oscar night. Director Sebastian Lelio often makes films with strong, complicated women at their centers — his 2013 awards-circuit hit, Gloria for instance. In Marina, he's got a uniquely striking heroine, whom he is forever surrounding with mirrors and reflective surfaces, as if determined that we should see her from every possible angle.

The director first encountered Daniela Vega, who plays Marina, while researching Santiago's transgender community. Initially a consultant, Vega not only won the part, she clearly influenced it — she is herself a trans woman, and an opera-trained singer who supplies her own vocals throughout the film. Vega gives Marina a fierce dignity that the character needs when dealing with Orlando's son and with his ex-wife, who refuses even to see Marina as a woman.

"When I look at you I don't know what I'm seeing" she says bluntly, but she also uses the word "perversion" — which suggests she at least knows what she thinks about what she's seeing. And she's adamant that Marina not attend Orlando's funeral, something she emphasizes by always addressing her as Daniel.

"Complicated," she says at one point, "quantum physics complicated." The film reflects that, while also acknowledging that things don't have to be. Even as she copes with her own grief, Marina must deal with being mistreated, misjudged, even mugged. And then there'll be a moment of grace — as a gentleman simply stands aside to let her enter an elevator first. Someone who can navigate all that, and remain resilient, assertive, even charismatic? Yes — she's a fantastic woman.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 11, 2018 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story used the incorrect pronoun "him" in the sentence "And she's adamant that Marina not attend Orlando's funeral, something she emphasizes by always addressing her as Daniel."
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.