I saw Una Mujer Fantastica in this year’s edition of Biografilm Festival in Bologna, where although the filmmaker Sebastián Lelio could not be present, he had sent a little video introducing his film. That brief but striking introduction was extremely powerful and stayed with me just as much as the film itself. Not because he said anything that different or original, but because of the sensitivity that he displayed, the utmost respect for the story he was telling, his actors and the characters they portrayed. Sebastián Lelio came across as everything that an artist should be – down-to-earth, sensitive, loving and protective of his art, but firm with the message he is sending through. And his film, Una Mujer Fantastica, is, as he put it himself, a test on empathy – as well as an invitation for empathy.
It is a difficult film to watch, more than anything for the fact that it is so simple in its complications. Everything goes wrong just the way that everything could, from one minute to the next. Nothing extraordinary happens. A man dies unexpectedly, while another suffers prejudice and violence; others remain comfortably detached in their little world, while a few more hide their own insecurities in wrongdoing. Nothing that we don’t know or that we don’t experience and witness daily – which is where the difficulty lies. It could happen to any of us, at any given moment. Most of it will, eventually. How will we act? Will we react? The filmmaker begs us to step into uncomfortable shoes and walk down this terrible path for a while, if only to understand how easily such a scenario could repeat itself.
The last time I felt this way when watching a film was The Hunt, by Thomas Vinterberg. A man is living his life, when everything comes crashing down – not out of anything major happening, but out of fear, unreasonable doubt and lack of understanding by those around him. Here, Sebastián Lelio creates a similarly frustrating setting for his protagonist, Marina (played excellently by Daniela Vega), to act. A place where the death of a loved one means she is exposed to the strongest fears and insecurities of the people around her. It doesn’t even take someone being different – in this case Sebastián Lelio chose to make Marina different, but he could as well not have. It just takes coming in contact with uneducated, fearful and narrow-minded individuals that have their own secrets and find it soothing when they can deter the attention onto someone else’s, for what happened to Marina to happen to us.
Read at Unsung Films: The Hunt.
But Marina is stronger than us. The way in which she handles all that happens to her is extraordinary to say the least. At times, she is like a superhero, in the sense that she never breaks down, she never cries, never fights to hurt or gives up. She is under immense pain, but she keeps going, never even letting anger take the better of her. Yet she never becomes a martyr – she always has the last word and at times even a bit of humour in the way that she is facing the most humourless situations imaginable. She’s a heroine and a badass, but does this soothe her audience? I don’t know. It didn’t soothe me. I needed her to turn into a villain, and maybe even kill everybody there. She remained someone to greatly respect until the end, but what happens to all the anger we, her viewers have gathered up within? I guess that is our problem.
Sebastián Lelio directs a strong actress juggling an even stronger character, and he does this with so much humility. He gives his protagonist so much space and freedom – something we’re grateful to him for, as it is what makes Una Mujer Fantastica what it is. The story is there and it’s more than powerful, but Daniela Vega is everything. She is hard and soft, angry and pained, a wild beast and a puppy, a man and a woman. Nobody else could have taken that role on and made it work like this, so when Sebastián Lelio confided in us that he found Vega in the streets of Chile and gave her her first ever film role, it made sense to us to conclude that it was the character out in search of the actress, and not the other way around.
Watch the trailer for Una Mujer Fantastica here:
Una Mujer Fantastica at IMDb
Una Mujer Fantastica at Wikipedia
Una Mujer Fantastica (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb