You may lose track of the number of scenes in "A Fantastic Woman" in which the heroine of the title meets someone who has already prejudged her an enemy. A young transgender woman who works as a singer and waitress in Santiago, Chile, Marina Vidal (fiercely and sympathetically embodied by Daniela Vega) has just watched her lover succumb to an aneurysm.
The sad, dreary business of tidying up affairs necessitates an encounter with the deceased's embittered ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), who greets her with unambiguous disgust. "When I look at you," she snarls, "I don't know what I'm seeing."
Rather than react visibly, Marina registers the insult with the silent indignation of someone who's heard it all before. But for Sebastián Lelio, who wrote and directed this compassionate and captivating movie, Sonia's spiteful words are less an attack than a challenge, and perhaps even an invitation.
For the better part of two hours he follows Marina as she races from devastation to determination, from righteous anger to melancholy understanding, across a city that views her with rude indifference at best and predatory contempt at worst. The camera's presence thus imposes its own corrective. Its sole purpose is to see Marina — and know her — as fully as possible.
Our first impression is mediated by the adoring gaze of her lover, Orlando (a warm Francisco Reyes), who picks her up at the club where she's performing and then takes her to dinner, chattering about taking her on vacation to the beautiful Igauzau Falls. Orlando Onetto, 57, is a few decades older than Marina, though the age difference seems of consequence only at the end of an evening of dining, dancing and passionate lovemaking. Awakening in the middle of the night, short of breath and barely able to stand, Orlando is rushed to the hospital with a concerned Marina by his side.
She has reason to worry, and not only for her partner, who will soon be beyond the reach of anyone's anxiety. Orlando has scarcely been dead for five minutes before doctors and detectives begin asking Marina hostile, probing questions about her relationship with the deceased and the circumstances of his death. One of her interlocutors calls her Daniel, the name still on her ID card, though that's preferable to some of the slurs and humiliations she will absorb over the next few days.
An investigator (Amparo Noguera) who specializes in sex crimes subjects her to a pointless, demeaning physical strip-down. Orlando's son (Nicolás Saavedra) orders her to vacate his father's apartment as quickly as possible and takes custody of the couple's dog. Sonia, reclaiming her ex-husband's car, refuses to let Marina attend the funeral and say her farewells. Marina silently defies this order, and the consequences are not pretty.
At times this litany of abuses might bring to mind Thelma Ritter's immortal line from "All About Eve" — "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end!" A more apt reference point might be found a bit further back, however, in great '40s melodramas like "Mildred Pierce," from which Lelio borrows a hefty helping of heroine worship and a small dose of noir intrigue. There is a mystery at the heart of the movie — it's established in the opening scenes, when we see Orlando visiting a sauna and then puzzling over some missing paperwork — but no crime, other than that of being a sexual minority in an intolerant time and place.
Which is not to suggest that "A Fantastic Woman," which will represent Chile in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film, is a bleak or hopeless piece of work. The story, for all its cruelty, doesn't skimp on humor or optimism, and when Marina isn't being assaulted by thugs and haters, she finds relief in the warmly supportive arms of people like her sister (Trinidad González) and music teacher (Sergio Hernandez). Even Orlando's brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco, "Neruda"), treats Marina with a level of decency and understanding that sets him apart from his relatives.
Lelio scored an international breakthrough with his marvelous 2011 comedy, "Gloria," starring Paulina Garcia as a divorcee navigating the pleasures and indignities of mid-life romance. He has already completed a new film, "Disobedience," a somber, well-observed drama with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as two lesbians whose relationship disrupts their Orthodox Jewish community. Considered in this context, the words "A Fantastic Woman" suggest not just a dead-on title but also an ardent declaration of artistic principles — a commitment to exploring and celebrating the inner lives of women with the intelligence and sensitivity they deserve but don't always receive.
That mission places Lelio on a footing with the most exalted of Spanish-speaking auteurs, Pedro Almodóvar, with whom he shares an exquisite sensitivity to colors, textures and compositions — an ability to harness the emotionally expressive power of the medium.
There are moments here that arrest you with their hallucinatory power, like a gay-club rave that becomes the shimmery dance number of Marina's dreams, or a stylized tracking shot in which she confronts an overpowering and highly metaphorical wind. Pristinely photographed by Benjamín Echazarreta, the movie repeatedly uses mirrors to refract and multiply Marina's image on-screen, as though reveling in the kaleidoscopic nature of her identity.
The ultimate effect, however, is very different. Unlike Almodóvar, Lelio is a cinematic realist at heart, and these surreal, isolated fantasies seem to reinforce, by way of contrast, the bonds that tether this movie to its social context. And the most plausible element, the foundation on which the movie rests and finally soars, is Vega's magnetic and meticulously controlled performance.
Vega is transgender herself, and her casting has been rightly hailed as an art-house breakthrough in a field where the roles and the plaudits have tended to go to cisgender performers like Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry" or Felicity Huffman in "Transamerica."
But if the resulting performance is a triumph of representation, it is also a bold and endlessly sympathetic feat of imagination — an acting tour de force whose every flash of fury and ecstasy is grounded in a cool, radiant stillness. By movie's end we know precisely what — or rather, who — we're looking at, but what matters more is that Marina seems to have known all along.
'A Fantastic Woman'
(In Spanish with English subtitles)
Rating: R, for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West L.A.; Arclight Hollywood