From the opening scene of “A Fantastic Woman,” there’s no cheating. In a nightclub, Orlando, a middle-age man who could be a businessman or executive, watches a woman singing on stage.
With a strong, masculine voice — excellent for this kind of song for brokenhearted men and women who listen with drink in hand — Marina starts to captivate Orlando.
The lyrics to the song, “Periodico de Ayer” by Hector Lavoe, tell the the film’s story: “Your love is like yesterday’s newspaper/Sensational when it came out in the morning/old news by noon.”
Daniela Vega, a transgender actress now famous in Chile, plays the role of Marina, a transgender woman. She’s not only the protagonist but the soul of this Chilean film, nominated for an Oscar for best foreign movie.
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Director Sebastian Lelio made sure his film would not be like 1992 classic “The Crying Game.” There would be no surprises with the gender of Marina. Orlando would not fall in love with a woman who turned out to be a man.
The romance between Marina and Orlando, played by Francisco Reyes, is reflected in the opening song. There’s nothing shocking for them because they share something very intimate and special. They treat each other with love, and they act like an old couple.
During a birthday dinner, Orlando gives her a ticket to Iguazu Falls. In 15 days, they would go on their honeymoon
And then death comes. Orlando suffers a stroke in the middle of the night. Marina has no rights to him and cannot accompany his body to the church or the burial. His family demands the keys to the apartment where they lived, seize the dog he gave her and try to erase all links between them. Police check Marina’s body for evidence of beatings that might have pushed her to murder Orlando.
Lelio, born in Argentina in 1974 and raised in Chile, is an expert at getting the best out of actresses, and his 2013 film “Gloria” earned an award for Paulina Garcia at the Berlin Film Festival.
“A Fantastic Woman” won the Goya prize for the best Iberoamerican movie and a Silver Bear for best script. Lelio will debut his first English-language film in April, “Disobedience” starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, and an adaption of “Gloria” with Julianne Moore toward the end of the year.
Vega started out in “A Fantastic Woman” as a cultural consultant. She opened the doors for Lelio, who lives in Berlin, to understand the transgender community in Santiago de Chile.
Lelio told el Nuevo Herald that after “Gloria,” he was left with a desire “to delve into new problems and expand what I was capable of doing in terms of movies.”
The premise for “A Fantastic Woman,” Lelio said: “What happens if the person you most love dies in your arms, but that is the worst place because you’re undesirable … What if this happens to a transgender woman?”
It was a risky topic with many pitfalls, but Lelio avoided them. The movie would not be the biography of a transgender woman, or about the process or costs of transitioning,
Vega was clear about her identity since she was a girl and started her transition at the age of 15. Her story is valuable, but her casting in the film was a natural, according to the director.
“More than anecdotes or experiences, she gave us what a transgender woman feels or senses,” he said. “My relationship with her made me think a lot about the issue of identity.”
“She raises the question, ‘What does it mean to be a woman? And that made me ask myself, ‘What is a movie?’” said Lelio, who co-wrote the script with Gonzalo Maza.
That partially explains what he called the “oscillating identity” of the movie as it passes through different genres. “It flirts with romantic movies, takes on social issues and it’s about ghosts,” he said.
The film addresses “the right to say goodbye to a dear person, and the friction that a transwoman runs into in a society full of prejudices,” he added.
But the movie is above all else about the limits of sympathy, he added. The key questions: Are there illegitimate persons, illegitimate loves? Who draws that line, and with what authority?
“That echoes in the crisis that humanity faces,” said Lelio, who added that the hot issue the movie started with is now a burning question amid the #MeToo sex harassment movement, the resurgence of nationalism and the triumph of Brexit in Europe.
Vega participated in an anti-harassment campaign last year, “I will not be silent,” with Hollywood figures like Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence and Gal Gadot.
For Lelio, his audiences will first connect with Vega’s role in “A Fantastic Woman.”
“The movie’s ideas, the concepts, the political dimension all come after the connection with Marina,” he said.
The situations he portrays in the movie also go beyond Chilean society.
“Chilean society is conservative, but U.S. society is puritanical. Latin American culture is conservative, and the rural areas are tremendously conservative. I don’t believe that’s just a Chilean thing,” he said. “One part of the world is connected to atavistic fears, and the other part to expanding the limits of the possible. We spend our time fighting between those two forces.”
“A Fantastic Woman” is playing at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave, 786-472-2249, and at O Cinema Miami Beach, 500 71St., 786-207-1919.