Singer Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) and her inamorato Orlando Onetto (Francisco Reyes) have much to celebrate. It's Marina's birthday, and they're both giddy about their May-December romance. In a few weeks Orlando plans to whisk Marina away to a romantic getaway at Iguazu Falls, on the Argentine-Brazilian border, though he's misplaced the tickets sometime during his day, which included a stop at a Scandinavian sauna located in downtown Santiago, Chile.
After a night of dinner, dancing and sex, Orlando wakes up not feeling well. In a rush to get him to the hospital, Marina forgets the keys to the apartment and leaves Orlando in the hallway near the elevator. Confused, Orlando heads for the stairwell and falls down a flight of stairs. Later, in surgery at the hospital, Orlando dies.
Such is the traumatic opening of Una Mujer Fantástica, the Oscar-winning film from Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio (“Gloria”), who co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Gonzalo Maza, and it only gets worse before it gets better.
In her very first onscreen role, Vega portrays the grieving Marina with a steely vulnerability. She's devastated, heartbroken and concerned about propriety in her new status. Without legal standing, Marina calls Orlando’s brother, Gapo (Luis Gnecco), to handle Orlando's affairs, but it's Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) and adult son (Nicolás Saavedra) who are rabid to take over his affairs, desiring to expunge Marina from not only his high-rise apartment but the memory of his life.
In their respective bereavement, Marina and the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy (Pablo Larraín, director of 2016's Jackie, is listed as a producer) have this purgatory in common, except Marina literally embodies a further complication: she's transgender.
Subsequently, everyone Marina encounters—from the hospital staff who insist on calling her "sir" to the supposedly sympathetic policewoman called in because she fears the bruises on Orlando's body may indicate he was abusing Marina—pile on microaggressions, mistaken accusations and outright hostility. Her existence is regarded as perversion, and accordingly the relationship with her beloved Orlando comes under suspicion; the only imaginable possibilities being abuse or sex work.
Bucking the trend of casting cisgender actors in trans roles, newcomer Vega, too, is transgender. She's charged with battling the very misperceptions that film, for years, has planted in our collective unconscious. Whether villain or victim, the most common parts, they're rarely taken seriously. Marina's greatest challenge is having her grief recognized.
As this goes on, the story ventures into didacticism. “We were a couple,” Marina is forced to explain. “It was a healthy, consensual relationship between two adults.” It's terrible dialogue, but then speaking isn't Marina's strength; her power comes from music and singing, which Lelio expresses in whimsical fantasy scenes that give Marina a much-needed reprieve from her grief, an escape from the hostile world and the fortification to move on.