Basic storytelling problems overwhelm A Fantastic Woman

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      Starring Daniela Vega. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      A fantastic performance anchors a much-lauded Chilean drama about gender identity and forces of love and loyalty. Elsewhere, this Oscar-nominated Woman has some problems that have little to do with the subject matter.

      Writer-director Sebastián Lelio had an international hit with Gloria, about a middle-aged woman rediscovering herself after a marriage crash. The young Santiago-based filmmaker certainly lucked out when Daniela Vega became a guide to the underground trans scene in his hometown.

      Lelio and writing-producing partner Gonzalo Maza ended up fashioning a story around the tall, charismatic Vega. Her background in theatre and, more surprisingly, bel canto opera made her a compelling choice to play Marina Vidal, an essentially sturdy person whose life is upended by sudden tragedy.

      In the well-shot film’s opening, we see our young lead singing with a local salsa-merengue band. She then goes home with Orlando (The Club’s Francisco Reyes), an older, bookish-looking fellow who then has a serious health crisis in the middle of the night. Marina rushes him to a nearby hospital, hands things over to his brother, and leaves it at that. From here on in, nothing is that straightforward. Police pick her up and head back to the hospital, where she’s questioned by authority figures with various levels of suspicion and contempt.

      Actually, Marina and Orlando were a well-established couple, living together long enough to garner the enmity of his ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) and his son (Nicolás Saavedra), who might be something of a psycho. The film is filled with elegantly misleading clues, supported by Nani García’s Hitchcockian orchestral score. At a certain point, though—maybe when they counter that by throwing Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on the soundtrack—you start to wonder if the filmmakers themselves know where all this is going. By the third time her dead lover’s ghost shows up, you begin questioning their basic storytelling skills.

      Virtually the entire tale is consumed by Marina’s attempts to reconcile her loss with the behaviour of Orlando’s family—one that, by any reckoning, she should be glad to be rid of.

      Along the way, she is both hassled and befriended by a tough female detective (Amparo Noguera), but the latter disappears from the story before anything comes of that. The movie consists of one ritual humiliation after another. And while it’s clearly on Marina’s side, we never quite get to know who she is. Almost every interaction is tinged by (understandable) wariness, but since she confides in no one, including the audience, we never get past that fantastic skin.

      Watch the trailer for A Fantastic Woman.