Daniela Vega made history Sunday at the Academy Awards when she stepped out to introduce the performance of “Remember Me” from Pixar’s “Coco” — making Vega the first transgender actress to present at an Oscar ceremony.
That moment came not long after Vega’s film “A Fantastic Woman” became the first Chilean movie to win the Academy Award for Foreign-Language Film — something director Sebastián Lelio’s bold and moving drama certainly deserves.
Vega plays Marina, a waitress with dreams of becoming a singer. She loves to sing for her boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), the owner of a printing company. Orlando is some 30 years older than Marina and is a bit of a sugar daddy to her. They live together in Orlando’s luxurious apartment, and they’re planning a big trip for Marina’s birthday.
Before that happens, though, Orlando falls ill and Marina must rush him to the hospital. When he dies, she must deal with a sea of problems. His ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), demands Marina stay away from the funeral. His son, Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), wants to evict her from Orlando’s apartment. And the cops — who insist on calling her Daniel, the name on her ID card from when she was a man — suspect her of foul play in Orlando’s death and subject her to interrogation and a humiliating physical examination.
Marina, denied even a moment to mourn her lover, stands up to this onslaught of indignities with fierce determination and a spine of steel. She reacts, and there is really no other way to describe it, like a lady.
She does have friends in her corner, including her sister (Trinidad González) and singing coach (Sergio Hernandez). Even Orlando’s brother (played by the great Chilean actor Luis Gnecco), though not entirely accepting of Marina’s gender, is at least sympathetic to her plight.
Lelio — who has his English-language debut “Disobedience,” a lesbian drama in the Orthodox Jewish community with Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, awaiting a spring release — captures the harshness of Marina’s struggle for identity. He leavens those serious strains with magical moments that show Marina as the fabulous creature she knows she is inside.
Lelio and co-screenwriter Gonzalo Maza craft an elegant, passionate screenplay around Vega, who informs every turn of the film with her life experiences and emotions. Her performance is a heartbreaker, and declares her an actress who is as fantastic as the title says.
★★★1/2<br>A Fantastic Woman<br>A young transgender woman fights for her identity and self-respect after her lover dies in this lyrical drama that won the Oscar for Foreign-Language Film.<br>Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City).<br>When • Opens Friday, March 9.<br>Rating • R for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault.<br>Running time • 104 minutes; in Spanish with subtitles.