Review: A Fantastic Woman

This is a cross-post with Third Coast Review.

It’s often said that film is the most collaborative of arts. It takes a village, so to speak, to create ninety minutes of story and visuals that move us, inspire us, scare us, entertain us. When everything comes together seamlessly, no one aspect of the film overshadows any other.

There are those cases, of course, where a certain element of the production trumps all others. Sometimes it’s the score that soars over every scene, or the cinematography that breathtakingly captures a world on screen.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In the case of A Fantastic Woman, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from Chile, it’s one performance that sends an already wonderful film into greatness. Daniela Vega is Marina Vidal, a trans woman scraping by with a waitressing job and dreams of being a singer. When her older boyfriend, Orlando, dies suddenly after celebrating her birthday, she faces her own grief and the prejudices of a family who want nothing to do with her.

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Watch This: The Salesman

For years promoting the U.S. releases of foreign films, again and again I heard them described as “quiet.” Quiet and compelling. Quiet and taut. Quiet and affecting. It’s no wonder so many worthy imports fail to reach a large audience. Who wants to spend two hours watching a lot of quietness – which is to say, a lot of nothing – on screen?

Which is why, even though it is in many ways, I will not describe Asghar Farhadi’s arresting new drama The Salesman as quiet. Yes, it employs more than one long stretch of dialogue-free action, and yes, the power of the film is in its nuances, the reaction shots and on-screen reveals rather than spit-fire dialogue. But what Farhadi has achieved (again) through this restrained approach is a poignant, timely and, odd as it may sound to an American audience about a film coming from Iran, a universal commentary on relationships – with each other, ourselves, our homes.

Emad and Rana perform together in a local theater troupe (currently presenting Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), and when construction next door to their apartment threatens to topple their building as well, they find a new place through a fellow actor. The previous tenant has left a room full of her belongings, but their friend assures them she’ll return soon to get it all.

So Emad and Rana, an ordinary urban, middle-class couple by any definition, settle in to their new home despite the circumstances. As Rana prepares for a shower one evening, the door buzzes; expecting that it’s Emad, who’d stopped at the supermarket on his way home, she absentmindedly buzzes him in, leaving the front door open as she steps back into the bathroom.

A very real anxiety gripped me immediately, less than a third of the way into the story, confirming an indication of the tension ahead and the deft hand with which Farhadi would present it. As any single woman living alone can tell you, you NEVER buzz someone in without checking who it is first, even if you are expecting someone.

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It happened this week: Blue is the Warmest Color hit Netflix streaming.

I’ve already written how moving I found this film, what a compelling performance Adele Exarchopoulos delivers. No matter. The news that the film is now streaming on Netflix merits mentioning it yet again.

screen shot 2013-10-29 at 5.24.51 pmThe film didn’t get any recognition at the Oscars. The rumor I read was that France didn’t submit it as their Best Foreign Language pick because the US distributor thought they could finagle nominations in the main categories (Picture, Actress, etc.). Which certainly isn’t unheard of (Life is Beautiful), but unfortunately didn’t pan out.

In the waning days of winter, I can’t recommend hunkering down for a few hours with this film enough. Grab a bottle of wine, get comfortable and enjoy the epic emotional journey of a film that dares to go there.