TIFF Review: Daniela Vega Stands Tall in ‘A Fantastic Woman’

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2017 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Movies about “triumphs over adversity” have long been a staple of cinema throughout the history of the artform. Unfortunately, that ubiquity can lead to predictable clichés. But every so often, a film like “A Fantastic Woman” comes along that breaks the mold. Directed by Sebastián Lelio, this aptly titled drama features a uniquely inspiring protagonist, showcased through the perceptive eye of a brilliant filmmaker.

The atypical star of “A Fantastic Woman” is Daniela Vega, who plays a transgender woman named Marina. Working as a singer and waitress with the loving support of her boyfriend Orlando, she seems to have it all together in her life. But one day, tragedy strikes. After a romantic night out, the couple goes to bed as they normally do. But this time, Orlando wakes suddenly in the middle of the night. To Daniela’s horror, he suffers an aneurism and falls down the stairs. Not long after, he is pronounced dead at the hospital. Daniela’s nightmare has only just begun, however, as the authorities and Orlando’s family members alike view her with suspicion.

As if to forecast the downhill emotional trajectory of the story to come, Lelio opens with a shot of a waterfall. Beautiful in its awe-inspiring grandeur, its loveliness is soon matched by the endearing relationship between Marina and Orlando. Their night of music, fine dining and sex would seem to reprise the same effervescent tone of Lelio’s previous effort “Gloria”.

But with a visceral intensity, Lelio quickly pulls the rug out from under Marina and the audience. And it gets even more harrowing after Orlando’s death. Marina endures an onslaught of interrogations and harassment from a range of suspicious persons, including a special detective from the Sexual Offenses Investigation Unit. Throughout, they attempt to diminish her humanity, insulting her as “monstrous” and a “perversion.”

In the face of all this prejudice, Marina’s reactions – or sometimes, a lack thereof – are the central appeal of the film. Though her passiveness sometimes leads to a lull in dramatic conflict, her quiet dignity is something to behold. And as a trans woman herself, actress Daniela Vega conveys this beautifully with an internalized performance of great poise. In addition, Lelio captures her struggle vividly with his masterful technique. The camera seems to mirror the persecution she faces, following her every move with invasive closeups and tracking shots that evoke catcallers stalking her from across the street.

Indeed, Sebastian Lelio effectively immerses us in the headspace of Marina’s experiences (including a few surreal dream sequences). In doing so, we feel her deep pain as she struggles to prove her love, her womanhood, and even her name. But despite the operatic tragedy of her life, Daniela Vega’s Marina stands tall as “A Fantastic Woman” to remember.

“A Fantastic Woman” opens in select theaters November 17.

GRADE: (★★★)

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MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |