I went to see this Chilean import after it won the best foreign film Oscar. It is sincere but unexceptional (with one standout, however). Apparently the social stigma against homosexuality and the transgendered is strong in Chile; an open wound, in fact. Director Sebastian Lelio (who co-wrote with Gonzalo Meza) presented this subject with sympathy, but the overall treatment is soft and dramatically slack.
Much critical attention, as well as approval, focuses on the fact that the transgender lead is played by a real transgender actress, Daniela Vega, for the first time in a film. And in fact, she is a compelling screen presence.
The story begins with Orlando, a businessman in his mid-fifties, played by Francisco Reyes, preparing an anniversary surprise for his live-in partner, Marina (Vega), who is in her late twenties. When they return from a restaurant, they make love and retire for the night. But Orlando wakes up, shaking and breathing heavily. After he falls down a flight of stairs, injuring himself, Marina panics and takes him to the hospital. Orlando, now unconscious, is admitted for treatment, but he has had an aneurysm, and dies in the hospital. When the doctor informs Marina about this, he becomes suspicious because she is so evasive. The police are called, and it is discovered that Marina was born a man, and had been Orlando’s homosexual lover.
The rest of the film shows Marina’s plight after this discovery. Orlando’s ex-wife and grown son are outraged when they learn that Marina wants to attend the funeral; the rest of the family feels the same way. The police are also concerned, specifically about Orlando’s physical injuries from the fall. Did Marina, who was younger and stronger, physically abuse him? A sex crimes officer, a seemingly sympathetic woman, grows impatient and has Marina undergo a body search as part of the investigation. Marina is both humiliated at her treatment and desperate. She will be thrown out of Orlando’s apartment by the family, and even have to give up Orlando’s dog, Diabla, which he had promised her.
This potentially involving story is often undercut by direction that is hackneyed and crude. Daniela Vega gives a delicate performance as Marina, but the character is never defined enough to make us care. Marina just stands in front of too many people, politely apologizing for whatever discomfort they feel in talking to her. Even when physically attacked by Orlando’s family, her impulse is to internalize her pain and smoke dope. Worst of all, whatever conflict is established never goes anywhere. The police investigation just stops, and at the end of the film, we still don’t know what Marina’s future will be. The ending, especially is a cop-out. However, it lives up to the film’s title. Marina is “fantastic” because she continually steps into a fantasy life that makes all her problems go away.
One scene is especially sloppy. Marina goes to a disco to forget her troubles, and links up with a macho type. They make out furiously in a corner, and Marina lowers her face to the man’s belt line. We can’t help thinking: this man is a stranger, in a hetero dance club, in a culture that is deeply homophobic. Is he in for a rude shock later? But, whatever you might expect to happen – whether ugly or exciting or both – doesn’t matter because, as always, Lelio just drops the whole thing. This time he plops us into a poorly choreographed dance fantasy that seems like a ripoff from Slumdog Millionaire.
But there was one scene that, briefly, caught me by surprise. Marina, who also sings professionally, goes to the apartment of her “music teacher”, and is greeted warmly, but also warily. An elderly man, he begins the lesson in a cool, pedagogic manner. But their banter is decidedly odd for a teacher-pupil relationship until, we realize slowly, that he is her father. It is the only revealing hint of Marina’s past, and might have given some substance to her story. But of course, Lelio drops it immediately. The two brief scenes with Marina’s adult sister and brother-in-law are just dull.
But the film’s triumph is the cinematography by Benjamin Echazarreta. Whatever emotional tone the film has is expressed, precisely and with uncanny intimacy, in its visual texture. It recalls the work of acknowledged masters, especially Ed Lachman.