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A Fantastic Woman


There is a moment in the Chilean film “A Fantastic Woman” when a transgender singer stands onstage and lifts her voice, an unwavering call that rises above the cruelties and prejudices she’s encountered in a country that has scorned her identity, ridiculed her love and chipped away at her pride.

Sebastián Lelio’s story, which won the Academy Award for foreign-language film, is an unrepentant fable in a time when transgender people and others in the LGBTQ community are demanding wider rights in countries, including Chile, that have treated them as deviants and curiosities. The film follows Marina (played by transgender actress Daniela Vega) in a quiet rebellion for dignity against condescension and relentless humiliation.

“I’m on Jupiter. I can’t believe that this happened,” Lelio said of his Oscar. “It is a film that has managed to contribute to a necessary and urgent conversation.””A Fantastic Woman” opens with Marina and her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) out on a date in Santiago. Things turn tragic when Orlando falls ill and dies. Marina grieves but also endures the scorn — both pointed and subtle — of a woman who is held in suspicion by Orlando’s family and the police. She moves through the story stunned but with the accustomed indignation that comes with being “the other.” In one scene, investigators subject her to a strip search, embarrassing her in the glare of florescent light.

Orlando’s ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), tells Marina with disdain: “When I look at you. I don’t know what I’m seeing.”

But she is unbroken; each slight brings a renewed resolve that has made the movie a bellwether for the transgender movement.

The first film from Chile to win an Academy Award in the foreign category, “A Fantastic Woman” is Lelio’s latest meditation of those at the edges. His 2013 international hit “Gloria” explored similar themes in the story of a middle-aged divorcee riding the joys, insecurities and indignities of a new romance. But the stakes are higher and the redemption more socially poignant for civil rights and gender equality in “Woman.””I didn’t make a casting decision as a fascist decision but as an act of freedom,” said Lelio of his choice of Vega to star. “Casting is an art. The presence of Daniela brought a quality to the story that adds a layer of complexity and beauty that I think a cisgender actor would not have been capable of bringing.”

He added: “I never thought that [casting her] was going to be that important, in the sense of how the film is perceived. I’ve been very surprised and happy that it’s become one of the most important artistic gestures of the movie. If it can keep expanding the horizons of our thinking, [it’s] so welcomed.”

Vega, whose portrayal of Marina, a waitress and a singer, was widely praised, said the film was a lesson against discrimination in an often unaccepting world: “I hope that everybody watches the movie and sees that it’s been produced from a place of love and it’s been produced to raise a lot of questions. One of them: What is left for the next generation? A better world or not?”

SANTIAGO, Chile — A bill that would give transgender Chileans the right to change their name and gender marker in official documents had been advancing at a glacial pace since a handful of lawmakers introduced it in May 2013.

Then along came Daniela Vega.Last year, the acclaimed performance in the film “A Fantastic Woman” by Ms. Vega, a transgender Chilean actress, gave a face and a voice to the plight of a largely invisible and stigmatized community. On Monday, she was celebrated as a national hero after the movie won the Academy Award for best foreign language film, a first for Chile.

The government of President Michelle Bachelet, whose term ends Sunday, used the news of the award on Monday to call on lawmakers to make headway on the bill this week.

“The award fills us with pride, not only because it recognizes a high caliber film, but a story about respect for diversity that serves us well as a nation,” Ms. Bachelet, who championed gay and transgender rights during her second term in office, wrote in a Twitter post on Monday morning.

Sebastián Piñera, the conservative former president who will take office for a second term this weekend, also issued a congratulatory message on Twitter, but steered clear of making a reference to transgender rights.“Tonight, Chilean film reached the stars,” Mr. Piñera wrote. “Go Chile and a big hug, with pride and emotion, to the whole team behind #UnaMujerFantastica,” he added using the film’s title in Spanish as a hashtag.

Mr. Piñera came under attack during a presidential campaign debate in December for suggesting that a child’s gender identity “might be corrected over time.” He said that his government would not discriminate against anyone, but argued that “we need to handle these cases in a responsible manner, in a serious way, not treating gender identity as something that is practically like a shirt that you can change every day.”Gay and transgender rights advocates in Chile said they hoped the movie’s recognition would galvanize bills and initiatives to expand rights and fight discrimination, even as Ms. Bachelet’s socialist government is replaced by a conservative one.

The Senate approved the gender identity bill in January 2014. The lower House in January passed a version of the bill but lawmakers remain at odds over whether the legislation should cover children and teenagers.

“Politicians can’t just celebrate the artistic aspect and refuse to take ownership of the reality that transgender people in our country face,” Juan Enrique Pi, the president of Iguales Foundation, a gay and transgender rights advocacy group, said. “The outgoing and incoming governments must assume their responsibility to defend the human rights of transgender people.”

Senator Juan Pablo Letelier, one of the original proponents of the bill, said it was drafted with narrow aims. “Thanks to this Oscar perhaps it will be understood that this law is not about an issue of values, but rather the basic human right to an identity,” Mr. Letelier said.

In the film, Ms. Vega plays the role of Marina, a transgender woman whose romantic partner, an older man, dies suddenly from an aneurysm. Her grief is compounded by the demeaning treatment she faces from hospital workers and the police, who assume she is a prostitute. The man’s family, meanwhile, bars her from attending the funeral.

The debut performance made Ms. Vega, who is also a lyrical singer, an overnight celebrity at home, and a star to watch in Hollywood.

The actress Julianne Moore, who won an Academy Award in 2015, urged her Twitter followers in February to “Run, don’t walk, to see A FANTASTIC WOMAN starring the magnificent @danivega.” The actress Helen Hunt, another Oscar recipient, called Ms. Vega “Spectacular Bravisima.” Apumanque, high-end shopping mall in Santiago, made Ms. Vega the face of its advertising campaign last year, an eyebrow-raising move.That makes perfect sense to Javiera Troncoso, an 18-year-old nursing student in Santiago.