For the past year and a half, I’ve been enrolled in a graduate program in special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The classes have been challenging and eye-opening, in part because my professors routinely ask me to reflect on my prejudices as a person without disabilities. In the first class I took for the program, an overview of the history of special education in the U.S., I learned about person-first language, and this shaped how I’ve approached the course material ever since. In brief, person-first language is a way of discussing people with disabilities—or, for that matter, anyone—that foregrounds their identities. Rather than describing a student as “an autistic child,” for example, one would describe him or her as “a child with autism.” This might seem like a simple semantic point, but person-first language can be transformative in how we view others, forcing us to consider their personhood before we think of how they’re affected by physical or mental conditions.
One thing I admire about Sebastián Lelio’s Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman (which is now playing at the Music Box and River East 21) is that delivers a lesson in what may be described as a person-first worldview. It shows how thinking of a person in terms of his or her physical condition can have a harmful effect on that person, limiting his or her sense of self. Lelio introduces viewers to a complex individual named Marina, showing her at work, engaging in hobbies (she moonlights as a singer at a nightclub), and enjoying a healthy romance. When Marina’s lover dies, his estranged family members turn up to organize his burial; they regard Marina as a transsexual and as an object of disgust. Their bigotry adds insult to injury—Marina not only suffers the pain of losing a loved one, but she’s unable to grieve satisfactorily when she’s barred from his wake and funeral.
Marina’s identity as a transsexual becomes an issue only when other characters make it an issue. Lelio and cowriter Gonzalo Maza introduce the character enjoying her life, encouraging viewers to sympathize with her as an ordinary individual, and Daniela Vega’s warm lead performance heightens the sympathetic portrait. If anything, the opening passages of A Fantastic Woman are almost too serene—Marina’s life seems a little too perfect. It’s as if Lelio and Maza didn’t have anything to say while waiting for the other shoe to drop, yet this impression is deceiving. When the prejudiced relatives show up, one realizes that Marina’s happiness can be punctured once people reduce her to a label. The good nature of the early scenes comes to seem like an oasis of sympathy in a bigoted world.
The scenes in which Marina meets her lover’s family are filled with painful questions and accusations, as the characters reveal their transphobic prejudices. Her lover’s grown son asks forthrightly if Marina has undergone a sex change operation. (“You don’t ask that,” she retorts, asserting ownership over personal information.) The lover’s ex-wife behaves even more hurtfully. She believes Orlando was attracted to Marina only out of perversion, and she forbids Marina from attending his wake and funeral because she believes that seeing Marina will be psychologically scarring to her seven-year-old daughter. Marina attends the wake anyway, and this intensifies the relatives’ hatred. In the movie’s most upsetting scene, three of Orlando’s male relatives throw Marina into a car, violently wrap her head with tape, and drive her away from the proceedings.
The remainder of A Fantastic Woman concerns Marina’s efforts to reclaim her sense of self after this episode. There are some tender moments where the heroine finds solace with her sister and her boss; as demonstrated by his previous film, Gloria (2013), Lelio is a superb director of actors, and he’s especially talented at conveying intimacy between characters who know each other well. The film even achieves a certain exuberance when Marina goes to a dance club and tries to lose herself in the scene. As she momentarily forgets about Orlando and the pain his relatives have caused her, Marina finds herself in a new costume performing a choreographed number with about a dozen other people. It’s a hard-won celebration of Marina’s right to be herself.