It is seemingly never far from a festival director’s mind to include films that challenge the social mores of society. Boundary pushing and taboo-busting is as much a part of the motivating force behind film festivals as the embrace of the overtly commercial. It is with this in mind that Sebastian Lelio’s drama nestles in competition for the Golden Bear.
Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) lives as a woman, but she is still biologically a man. She is in a relationship with a gentleman many years older than her. Suddenly, the man – Orlando (Francisco Reyes) – dies. The family turn against what his ex-wife calls a ‘chimera’, with heavy suspicion and fear fuelling a war on Marina. She is not wanted anywhere near the family. They demand that their dearly departed loved one’s flat, car and more to be returned to them.
Whilst there is the fleeting residual impression and faint glimmer of foul play at hand, it is not for this reason that hostility awaits Marina. It is pretty clear that it is because people don’t understand her. And what is the most potent tool for a lack of understanding? What is the emotion that fares best in such circumstances? Anger.
Lelio’s story is thinly veiled in its attack on fierce prejudice and stereotyping. It rails bitter protest at the notion of scapegoating, and yet the director has also painted Marina as an aggressive protagonist. This is a disservice to Lelio’s cause, but maybe a deliberate one to test the audience’s sympathy and also one to avoid charge of this being a ‘morality tale’.
The plot’s mystery centres round a key marked ‘181’ and it is here that the piece occasionally veers into Hitchockian territory. Aside from a touch of Hitch, there are dashes of Almodovar in the bold regale. Yet, for all of its bluster, the conclusion peters out, never realising the promise of the 100-odd minutes preceding it. Is this another example of a premise fully thought through, but the culmination left as an afterthought? The writing was a collaborative effort by the director and Gonzalo Maza and maybe opprobrium should be angled there.
The standout is Daniela Vega’s powerful performance, exhibiting a stoicism in the face of verbal and physical abuse. This is a tale about loss and how we all process grief in a different way. Understanding, compassion and patience are key tenets of a well-functioning and civilised society. In times of trouble, as many would attest we are in now, when liberalism is recoiling into its shell, we need these voices and these stories more than ever. It’s just a pity it wasn’t executed a little bit better here.
Una Mujer Fantastica played in Competition at the Berlin Film Festival 2017.