Marina is lost. She walks the streets of Santiago, Chile, glazed with grief and dispossession, prevented from coming to terms with the recent death of her lover, Orlando, by his ex-wife’s rage, his son’s jealousy, his brother’s sincere but ineffectual concern and the uncertainty and humiliation of people she encounters who don’t know what to make of her.
“I don’t know what I’m looking at,” a character says to Marina during a fraught confrontation. “You’re a chimera.”
This could be a typical conversation between any women vying for the material and emotional legacy of a man. But Marina happens to be transgender, throwing everyone around her into a state of barely concealed, sometimes brutally violent, panic.
Portrayed by the Chilean singer and actress Daniela Vega — who is transgender in real life — Marina is something of a cipher in “A Fantastic Woman,” which won the Oscar Sunday in the foreign-language category. She’s treated like a screen onto which people feel emboldened to project their deepest fears and insecurities.
With her strong features and penchant for short skirts and high heels, Marina is the kind of character that a filmmaker like Pedro Almodóvar would throw into hysterically pitched, high-Sirkian melodrama. But Sebastián Lelio — who made the wonderful, female-centric portrait “Gloria” a few years ago — treats her story with delicacy and tact, through a style that’s far more muted, sometimes to a fault.
The daze in which Marina seems trapped can feel impassive, even off-putting, until the viewer realizes how narrow her channels are for honesty and expression. We see a woman — once the center of her beloved’s life, now relegated to the margins of his death — constricted, at one point literally, by irrational fears and hatreds.
There are times when Vega, who makes a promising acting debut here, seems ill at ease with Marina’s self-policing reticence; she moves with an awkward, wooden tentativeness that’s of a piece with Lelio’s own reserve. The moments when “A Fantastic Woman” takes off come in bursts of magical realism, such as when Marina suddenly finds herself heading off impossible head winds, or leading a sparkly dance number.
The allegorical meaning of these sequences are as on the nose as Marina listening to Aretha Franklin singing “Natural Woman” on the car radio. But they inject life into what threatens to be a listless procedural, and they show just how expressive an actress Vega can be.
Best of all is when she sings, her exquisite voice offering a soothing balm of transcendence and lyrical beauty. (Vega trained as an opera singer.) We realize then that Marina more than lives up to the title. “A Fantastic Woman” serves as a gentle reminder that we all contain multitudes.
A Fantastic Woman
Rated: R for coarse language, sexuality, nudity and a disturbing assault. Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco. Director: Sebastián Lelio. Running time: 104 minute. Theater: Flicks. In Spanish with subtitles.