LOS ANGELES, March 5, (Agencies): Landmark Chilean drama “A Fantastic Woman,” a stirring story of love and loss that centers on a transgender woman, won the Oscar for best foreign language film on Sunday.
“I’m in Jupiter,” elated director Sebastian Lelio said backstage after accepting his golden statuette. “I can’t believe this happened.”
A favorite to win, the film has been hailed as a milestone in representing transgender characters and for taking on the timely subject of transgender identity with compassion and sensitivity.
Lelio said he hoped the film’s Academy Award recognition would help “contribute to a necessary and urgent conversation” about transgender rights in Chile and around the world.
“A Fantastic Woman” follows Marina, a transgender waitress and nightclub singer, whose long-term and loving older boyfriend suddenly dies. They had shared a protective bubble of bliss and tenderness that is suddenly shattered and Marina’s world falls apart.
Marina, played by transgender actress Daniela Vega, spends most of the film numbed by grief and battling for the right to mourn as her lover’s family shuns and humiliates her and tries to block her from his funeral.
When Lelio accepted the award on stage, he called Vega his inspiration for the film. Vega joined the director and producers on stage and later took to the stage alone to present one of the evening’s musical performances. “Thank you so much for this moment,” Vega said, wearing a strapless magenta gown.
Some had hoped Vega would become the first transgender actor nominated for an Oscar. Hollywood has come under increasing criticism for celebrating trans stories played by non-trans actors, while failing to cast transgender actors — Hilary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry”), Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”) and Felicity Huffman (“Transamerica”) have all garnered Oscar nominations for trans roles, with Swank and Leto winning.
Lelio said it was important to him to cast the part of Marina with a transgender actress. He initially started working with Vega as a consultant for the film but in the process of honing the script together, Lelio realized his adviser was his star.
“I was not going to make this film without a transgender actress in the main role,” Lelio said backstage, adding that Vega brought a presence and truthfulness and complexity to the role that he didn’t think a non-transgender actor could have.
Vega transitioned 14 years ago in Chile and was “a pioneer,” Lelio said.
“She carries that history and the camera knows that,” he said.
The Chilean film beat out Lebanon’s “The Insult,” Russia’s “Loveless,” Hungary’s “On Body and Soul,” and Sweden’s “The Square.”
The category was presented by Puerto Rican actress-singer Rita Moreno, who donned the same gown she wore 56 years ago when she won best supporting actress for “West Side Story” in 1962.
Moreno received a standing ovation when she took the stage.
The 86-year-old Moreno quoted Frank Capra as saying there were three universal languages: “Music, mathematics and the one we honor tonight, the universal language of film,” Moreno said.
“Regardless of its country of origin or the dialect of its words, a great film conveys a story that speaks to the one condition we all share,” Moreno said. “The human condition.”
“I think no one in this world hasn’t gone through a transition in their lives, if only from being a baby to a grown-up,” Vega said last year at the Berlin Film Festival, where the film directed by Chile’s Sebastian Lelio won best screenplay honors.
“I moved from being a man to a woman and I’m glad I did it. This is my personal choice and this is what constitutes my humanity.”
Lelio, 43, is part of a new wave of Chilean filmmakers along with Pablo Larrain, a co-producer on this film and the director of Oscar-nominated “Jackie” (2016).
“Film should ask questions rather than deliver answers; the main goal is to shed light on something,” said Lelio, who earned international acclaim for “Gloria” (2013), another film centered on a woman in crisis.
He says it would have been unthinkable to case a non-transgender actress in the role of Marina, likening it to the scorned practice of “blackface.”
In the film, Orlando’s family bars Marina from the funeral, kicks her out of the apartment she and Orlando intended to share, and even takes away her beloved German shepherd, Diabla.
Meanwhile the police suspect Orlando’s death from an aneurysm may have involved drugs or foul play, and submit Marina to questioning and a humiliating physical exam.
With determination and grit, Marina lives her life and refuses to go away without a fight.
“She is fantastic because she finds dignity where there was none,” says Vega.
Lelio says the film was written well before transgender culture started to be “ingrained in our collective imagination.”