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.
The film showcases elements of melodrama, fantasy, and mystery, and follows Marina as she struggles to survive in a society that questions her identity and her existence. For Lelio, making Marina the center of the story was a decision that revealed his belief in the transformative power of art. His nuanced portrait was an attempt to create an emotional connection between her and the viewer, which could lead to shattering people’s prejudices about transgender people.
“I wanted to offer the viewers the possibility of connecting with Marina, beyond definitions,” said Lelio. “I wanted them to connect with her emotionally, not through the intellect, but in a more direct, profound, and urgent way.”
Part of the movie’s success lies in the powerful performance of the lead actress. A Chilean trans woman and mezzo-soprano singer, Daniela Vega had been hired by Lelio as a consultant for the movie, but as time went by, he realized Vega had to be the star, and he offered her the lead role.
“It was a very important artistic decision that put the film in a different dimension,” he said. “The camera cannot hide the fact that you are filming someone who has a history and a body that carries it.”
Vega, for her part, also went on to make history. She became the first openly transgender presenter at the Oscars ceremony in 2018 and continues her artistic career and her activism for transgender rights. At a news conference after meeting Bachelet, Vega spoke of the need for society to protect transgender rights.
“Trans people have existed since day one in human existence, and there comes a point where humanity creates gestures to comprehend themselves,” Vega said. “Film, like art, attempts to better understand human beings, their capacities, their dreams, their disillusionments, and where the limits are. This film proposes to see where the limits of empathy are, which bodies can be inhabited, which forms of love could be or could not be attainable, and who sets those limits.”
Looking back at his movie, Lelio said it highlights the changes that Chilean society has undergone in the past decades. “Chile has been in a process of transformation,” he said. “We either learn to somehow embrace the complexities of life and create political instruments and institutions that can contain that and recognize that, or we will too easily fall into the traps of fascism, and therefore simplification, and therefore brutality.”