Places of the Heart


A Brief Review and Commentary of “A Fantastic Woman”
A Film by Sebastián Lelio

by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director


“If nothing saves us from death, at least love should save us from life.” - Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda

This reviewer often approaches cinematic dramas with a basic measuring stick. First, every film -- if it’s any good -- is based on a true story. That is, to be true, it has to be credible. So the same goes for any fictional tale that conveys the same truths.

Second is the acknowledgment that when it comes to a good story, there aren’t many entirelly original ones you haven’t heard before. The faces, names, times and places may change. But the basic themes found in the plotlines are easily transposable from place to place. So what makes a particular version of a familiar story good, or great?

What can make a great story – especially when artfully expressed in film – depends on how authentically those familiar themes are portrayed by the symbolic imagery, characters, and their actions.

In this sense, A Fantastic Woman is a readily recognizable love story; including a tragic twist. It is one in which one lover is lost to the other; with the one left behind having to learn how to muster the strength and courage to carry on alone. The unfolding drama is subsequently one that seeks the answer to a question with which anyone who has ever mourned can identify. How shall one grieve? And specifically with the particular set of circumstances in this story, how will Marina be allowed to grieve the death of Orlando?

In Mountain Shadow’s first year (2014), we brought our audiences Sebastián Lelio’s prior film, Gloria.  It was the story of a 58-year old divorcé, who seeks male companionship; only to find disappointment, but ultimately discover her true self, and the strength to stand resolutely on her own. In this sense, Gloria and Marina have similar stories.

With her transgender identity, however, Marina also has to confront the types of social intolerance, discrimination and persecution minorities of one kind or another often face.

In the eyes of Orlando, he sees a captivating beauty that melts his heart and puts an irrepressible smile on his old face. But in the eyes of Orlando’s family, Marina is the embodiment of perversion. At one point in the film, Orlando’s former spouse calls her a “chimera.”  [In Greek mythology, a chimera was  a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. In human beings, a chimera is a person who, in fact, has two totally different sets of DNA inside their body.]

After being spurned and turned away from the family wake for Orlando, Marina asks his brother, Gabo a basic question. (btw: Gabo is played by Luis Gnecco, who portrayed Pablo Neruda in the film by the same name, shown at Mountain Shadow in 2017), “Saying goodbye to a loved one when he dies,” Marina asks, “is a basic human right, isn’t it?”

In answer to that fundamental question, the filmmaker skillfully juxtaposes and frames such seeming rights with images of trans-identity throughout the film. Even as the film opens, the camera captures the cascading waters of Iguazu Falls, blending separate flows into one billowing, indistinguishable, almost orgasmic crescendo.  The natural world seems to suggest what should be plainly seen as natural. Only humans have a tendency to arbitrarily dictate what is deemed un-natural or perverse.

Orlando’s apparition appears in brief glimpses throughout Marina’s grief process; until a final fantasy graces her with a goodbye kiss, and an inferno consumes a corpse. Only then, and for the first time, is she able to stand proudly resolute and sing her parting eulogy, smiling.

Playing the part of Marina is Daniela Vega; a transgender Chilean actress and singer, who offers these closing lines, “Ombra Mai Fu.” It’s from Act I of the Italian opera Serse by George Frideric Handel:


Tender and beautiful fronds of my beloved plane tree,
Let fate smile upon you,
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never bother your dear peace,
Nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.
Never was made a plant
more dear and loving or gentle.