To begin Sebastian Lelio’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to his striking debut Gloria, we indulge in a fleeting, yet beautiful romance. It might only be a night we experience in the company of Orlando (Francisco Reyes) and his younger partner Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), but the way he watches her when she performs in her secondary job as a nightclub singer, and the comfortability between the two, so genuine, so ineffably passionate, it’s a relationship we invest in – until the former dies suddenly. From this point onwards it transpires nobody else took their relationship for what it was – but we know, and that’s vital as we progress throughout this well-crafted narrative.

A waitress by day, Marina is transgender, and it’s this very fact which prevents the authorities and the family of the deceased to believe in Orlando’s love for her, instead claiming it to be an act of perversion, with only his brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) showing any semblance of empathy for her. Marina is grieving, and wants nothing more than to do so in peace, and say her goodbyes at the forthcoming funeral, yet is warned away by Orlando’s ex-wife and son. They also give her a deadline to leave the apartment that she lives in, given it’s in the dead man’s name. But if there’s one thing that Marina carries it’s a toughness – and this fantastic woman is not going to give in anytime soon.

With so little of Orlando’s belongings bestowed to Marina, she is left with a mystery key, which she cannot place, but believes there may be something for her, if only she could uncover which lock this key fits. This sub-storyline injects a thrilling, suspenseful element into the film, perpetuated by the intense score, as Marina so often stairs down at this object; and nothing is more mysterious than an unplaceable key.

A Fantastic WomanWhile Marina is a victim in this humiliating debacle, with the law enforcement taking her in for questioning given the bruises on Orlando’s body when he died – obtained when falling down the stairs during the aneurysm which killed him – you do see why they feel the need to get a few things straight, at the very least just a statement of what occurred – but she’s hardly compliant when they’re pursuing answers. So while this tale is very much placed within this short period of time, the film is contextualised by Marina’s frustration, as you feel we’ve caught up with her at a stage in her life where she’s just fed up of being treated differently, and you cannot blame her for being on the defensive.

Lelio has delved into the mind of a character seldom seen in cinema, and he’s done so without any sensationalism, which is helped along by casting a genuine transgender performer in the lead role, and Vega is simply remarkable. You get a sense for that anguish, from the bullying and humiliation, as you gather her emotions and reactions are coming from a real place, which she can convey with just a subtle glance, in what is a gloriously nuanced performance.

It’s a performance that requires a strong storyteller behind it, and Lelio excels. Though emotionally charged and dramatic in its execution, he takes creative risks, making for a film that while steeped in realism, has surrealist twists along the way, and several visually striking sequences that provide a slight, if enchanting touch. The Chilean is proving himself to be a real force behind the camera, and one can only hope that he maintains such sensibilities in America, with an English-language production next up. It’s not only viewers who will be pleased by such news either – actresses in Hollywood too will be excited at the prospect of working with a filmmaker who explores feminism in a unique and important way.

A Fantastic Woman is playing at the Transylvania International Film Festival 2017.