The title of Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” seems straightforward enough, but, like everything else in this gently heart-wrenching, quietly furious film from Chile — a nominee for this year’s foreign language Oscar — it carries a double meaning and a sting. Marina (Daniela Vega), the movie’s heroine, is a fantastic woman, sensitive, caring, and kind. But to the far too many people who look at her and see only the man she used to be, Marina isn’t a person at all but an unnatural fantasy — a “chimera,” in the horrified words of one character.
The film opens with the last night on Earth that Marina will share with her courtly 50-something lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). There’s a nice dinner out, some dancing at a club, a bit of tender lovemaking — and then he falls suddenly ill and is raced to the hospital.
He doesn’t pull through.
“A Fantastic Woman” proceeds to catalog with mounting disbelief the ways in which the woman who mourns him is treated as a freak and a criminal. The doctor who gives Marina the bad news realizes she’s trans, and suddenly a policeman is asking for her ID. Detective Cortes (Amparo Noguera) from the Sexual Offenses Unit turns up at the restaurant where Marina works as a waitress. “Was he paying you?” she is asked. “It was a healthy, consensual relationship between two adults,” Marina responds with a dignity no one cares to notice.
Director/co-writer Lelio was previously seen in these parts with “Gloria” (2013), a charmer about an indomitable middle-aged woman; Lelio has the knack of illuminating the lives of everyday saints with empathy and warmth. And not just the saints: We understand why the dead man’s ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) wants nothing to do with the person for whom her husband left her, even as we flinch at the cruelty with which she dismisses Marina from the human race. “No need to be sorry, ma’am; you’re normal,” Marina replies, and only she and we hear the insult.
“A Fantastic Woman” charts the heroine’s slow rising to her feet with a naturalism lightly dusted by whimsy. Vega, a trans actress from Chile, uses her large, expressive eyes to convey the fear shadowing Marina’s every moment and the contempt that flickers into flame as the film draws to a climax. The dead man’s family has forbidden her to attend the wake or the funeral, and Orlando’s grown son (Nicolas Saavedra) regards her with a grieving hatred that seems ready to explode. A forced medical examination is one more humiliation silently shared by the character and the audience.
Marina does have her defenders — Orlando’s older brother (Luis Gnecco), her sister (Trinidad Gonzalez) and brother-in-law (Nestor Cantillana), a singing coach and mentor (Sergio Hernandez) — but she understands that in this matter, as in most things, she remains alone. This is why she loved Orlando as she did; this is why she mourns him as a spouse would. When she sings a Baroque aria in the teacher’s apartment, it’s Giacomelli’s “Sposa son disprezzata”: “I am wife and I am scorned.”
Other musical choices are heavy-handed — “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” on a car radio, for one — and the movie occasionally errs on the side of giving us too little information rather than just enough. But Lelio mostly achieves his effects with benevolent subtlety, and “A Fantastic Woman” is, in a way, an updated and very wise variation on a classic Hollywood woman’s film (as was “Gloria,” for that matter), with a beleaguered or unseen central figure gradually gathering pride and self-worth on her own.
Mirrors loom large in this movie, and Marina reflects back an image that too much of society refuses to see, to the point where she herself starts to doubt her own reflection. Yet the film’s most potent and lasting image involves a hand mirror and a steady gaze, and it serves as a breathtaking poetic metaphor about gender, identity, love, and the human soul. All you have to do, says Lelio, is look and see.
A FANTASTIC WOMAN
Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Written by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza. Starring Daniela Vega. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, West Newton. 104 minutes. R (language, sexual content, nudity, a disturbing assault). In Spanish, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.