There is a moment in the Chilean film "A Fantastic Woman" when a transgender singer stands onstage and lifts her voice, an unwavering mezzo-soprano that rises above the cruelties and prejudices she's encountered in a country that has scorned her identity, ridiculed her love and chipped away at her pride.
Sebastián Lelio's story, which won the Academy Award for foreign-language film, is an unrepentant fable in a time when transgender people and others in the LGBTQ community are demanding wider rights in countries, including Chile, that have treated them as deviants and curiosities. The film follows Marina (played by transgender actress Daniela Vega) in a quiet rebellion for dignity against condescension and relentless humiliation.
"I'm on Jupiter. I can't believe that this happened," Lelio said of his Oscar. "It is a film that has managed to contribute to a necessary and urgent conversation."
"A Fantastic Woman" opens with Marina and her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) out on a date in Santiago. Things turn tragic when Orlando falls ill and dies. Marina grieves but also endures the scorn — both pointed and subtle — of a woman who is held in suspicion by Orlando's family and the police. She moves through the story stunned but with the accustomed indignation that comes with being "the other." In one scene, investigators subject her to a strip search, embarrassing her in the glare of florescent light.
Orlando's ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), tells Marina with disdain: "When I look at you. I don't know what I'm seeing."
But she is unbroken; each slight brings a renewed resolve that has made the movie a bellwether for the transgender movement.
The first film from Chile to win an Academy Award in the foreign category, "A Fantastic Woman" is Lelio's latest meditation of those at the edges. His 2013 international hit "Gloria" explored similar themes in the story of a middle-aged divorcee riding the joys, insecurities and indignities of a new romance. But the stakes are higher and the redemption more socially poignant for civil rights and gender equality in "Woman."
"I didn't make a casting decision as a fascist decision but as an act of freedom," said Lelio of his choice of Vega to star. "Casting is an art. The presence of Daniela brought a quality to the story that adds a layer of complexity and beauty that I think a cisgender actor would not have been capable of bringing."
He added: "I never thought that [casting her] was going to be that important, in the sense of how the film is perceived. I've been very surprised and happy that it's become one of the most important artistic gestures of the movie. If it can keep expanding the horizons of our thinking, [it's] so welcomed."
Vega, whose portrayal of Marina, a waitress and a singer, was widely praised, said the film was a lesson against discrimination in an often unaccepting world: "I hope that everybody watches the movie and sees that it's been produced from a place of love and it's been produced to raise a lot of questions. One of them: What is left for the next generation? A better world or not?"