When Chilean film director Sebastián Lelio began writing the script for “A Fantastic Woman” in 2014, he set out to craft a multidimensional portrayal of a transgender woman that went beyond platitudes or prejudices. He ended up achieving that and more.
The film drew much critical praise and went on to win the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In addition, “A Fantastic Woman” would play a role in the passage of a landmark Chilean gender-identity law soon after. But Lelio says his own goals were more artistic than political.
“I was just trying to make a film that hopefully was as complex and beautiful as its main character,” he said during a Zoom chat held last week as part of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies’ Film Series.
The event was moderated by Jorge Sánchez Cruz, visiting assistant professor in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, and Adrián Rodríguez Ríos, a Ph.D. student who is doing his work in the same department.
Lelio, who identifies as a white heterosexual man, said he didn’t start out to make a transgender film or advance the transgender cause but was glad his movie helped move the needle on Chilean attitudes.
After winning the Oscar, Lelio and his team were invited to the presidential palace by Chile’s then-President Michelle Bachelet, who wished to congratulate them. Just prior to the meeting Bachelet had taken steps intended to speed passage of a long-stalled gender-identity bill.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Bachelet later tweeted: “It was an honor to have the team of ‘A Fantastic Woman’ here in La Moneda, the people’s house. Like other great pieces of our art, this film has driven conversations on social advances Chile is demanding.”
The gender-identity law allows transgender individuals older than 14 years to legally change their name and gender, with no requirement for surgery or change in physical appearance. It was not a small step for Chile, traditionally a conservative country, where divorce was legalized only in 2004.
Lelio said part of the movie’s impact was simply due to fortuitous timing. By the time the film was released, the presence of transgender people in popular culture was more visible worldwide, and the film found its way into the fabric of Chilean society and changed some minds and hearts.
“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” said Lelio. “The film belongs to the time in which it was released.”
Critics praised the movie for its poignant and complicated rendering of the transgender experience from the perspective of a transgender woman. The movie’s protagonist is Marina, a waitress and nightclub singer who is in a loving relationship with an older man. When he dies, she faces rejection, suspicion, and contempt from her lover’s family. Marina is not allowed to attend the funeral, and she fights for her right to say goodbye to her lover.