Marina is lost. She walks the streets of Santiago, Chile, glazed with grief and dispossession, prevented from coming to terms with the recent death of her lover, Orlando, by his ex-wife’s rage, his son’s jealousy, his brother’s sincere but ineffectual concern and the uncertainty and humiliation of people she encounters who don’t know what to make of her.
“I don’t know what I’m looking at,” a character says to Marina during a fraught confrontation. “You’re a chimera.”
This could be a typical conversation between any women vying for the material and emotional legacy of a man. But Marina happens to be transgender, throwing everyone around her into a state of barely concealed, sometimes brutally violent, panic.
Portrayed by Chilean singer and actress Daniela Vega, who is transgender in real life, Marina is something of a cipher in “A Fantastic Woman,” which won this year’s foreign language Oscar. She’s treated like a screen onto which people feel emboldened to project their deepest fears and insecurities.
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With her strong features and penchant for short skirts and high heels, Marina is the kind of character that a filmmaker like Pedro Almodóvar would throw into hysterically pitched melodrama. But director Sebastián Lelio treats her story with delicacy and tact, through a style that’s far more muted, sometimes to a fault.
The daze in which Marina seems trapped can feel off-putting until the viewer realizes how narrow her channels are for honesty and expression. We see a woman — once the center of her beloved’s life, now relegated to the margins of his death — constricted by irrational fears and hatreds.
There are times when Vega, who makes a promising acting debut here, seems ill at ease with Marina’s self-policing reticence. The moments when “A Fantastic Woman” takes off come in bursts of magical realism, such as when Marina finds herself heading off impossible head winds or leading a sparkly dance number.
The allegorical meanings of these sequences are as on the nose as Marina listening to Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” on the car radio. But they inject life into what threatens to be a listless procedural, and they show just how expressive an actress Vega can be.
Best of all is when she sings, her exquisite voice offering a soothing balm of transcendence and lyrical beauty. We realize then that Marina more than lives up to the title. “A Fantastic Woman” serves as a gentle reminder that we all contain multitudes.
(At Alamo Drafthouse and Glenwood.)
‘A Fantastic Woman’
Rated R for coarse language, sexuality, nudity and a disturbing assault. In Spanish with subtitles.