In what is already shaping up to be a good year for queer cinema, yet another film landed with a bang on the Berlinale carpet: Sebastián Lelio’s Una mujer fantástica. Completely held together by a quietly powerful lead performance by trans actress Daniela Vega, an early contender for the Best Actress prize next Saturday, and Lelio’s deliberate and measured approach, built on a tension that gets under the skin, Una mujer fantástica is a fabulous character study of a struggle for acceptance, as a woman and as an equal partner.
Marina (Vega) is much younger than her lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). She has recently moved in with him, and they are planning to spend their lives together. Orlando left his wife and family for Marina. One night, after celebrating Marina’s birthday, Orlando suddenly falls ill. Marina rushes him to the hospital, but it’s too late: Orlando dies. What follows is a humiliating fight for Marina to get her rightful place and acknowledgment as Orlando’s partner. Not taken seriously as his partner, and indeed as a woman, by Orlando’s family as well as the police, Marina is forced out of Orlando’s apartment and not allowed to attend his wake. But Marina is not going to take the humiliations lying down, as she fights back to get what’s hers.
Una mujer fantástica begins and ends with Daniela Vega’s phenomenal internalized performance as Marina, the titular woman. As a transsexual woman herself, one can feel that she lays a lot of her own history in her character, especially when dealing with both the subtle and the more blatant bigotry she encounters after Orlando’s death. She pulls up a defensive wall real quick, a contrast to the warmth she exudes in her early scenes with her partner. Vega mainly acts with her eyes, which show a quiet indignation mixed with a shellshocked grief that she hardly is allowed to have, let alone show, meaning she has to deal with losing the man of her life on her own. The feeling of something brewing underneath is compounded by the film’s intense cinematography. Composed mostly in static shots, the slow zooms on Marina, combined with Matthew Herbert’s creeping orchestral score, underline Marina’s inner turmoil, an exquisite example of filmmaking and acting equaling more than the sum of its parts. But all of that wouldn’t have worked without Vega’s eyes and body language, her resilience in not moving an inch, her unwillingness to be marginalized; Vega doesn’t need a lot to let you get inside her head a little. This is mimimalist acting at its finest, in a role that could so easily have had a lesser actress opt for more melodrama.
Lelio, whose lead actress Paulina Garcia won a Silver Bear a couple of years ago for his previous feature Gloria (so there is a bit of precedence), shows a deep understanding of Marina’s barrage of problems in present-day society, even as it is opening up toward LGBTQ, and more specifically trans, people. The petty remarks, the open hostility, and the complete lack of empathy for the unknown and indeed queer, their memories and consequences etched on Marina’s face, are portrayed by Lelio with an underlying anger and an understanding for his protagonist, with which Vega helped him a good deal, no doubt. This is clearly more of a collaboration between a director and his actress than it is the work of an auteur, although his short career certainly shows him moving toward films about women on the fringes.
The rest of the cast is equally strong, Francisco Reyes in his relatively small role especially fine at expressing a true investment in a relationship which is shunned by his family. His family members are drawn with less nuance, except perhaps for Orlando’s brother, but the actors manage to make their characters not out-and-out evil caricatures. Even if their actions are spiteful and at some points downright repugnant, Lelio shows some understanding for these people who have trouble adjusting to a changing society, certainly in a time of grief. He doesn’t absolve them, but gives them a kind of helplessness that shows a hopeful outlook for LGBTQ rights as far as the director is concerned. But above all, Una mujer fantástica is a pamphlet for acceptance, a moving portrait of a human fight.