Written by Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Chile and Spain, 2013
The advantage that the new film Gloria has is its uniqueness. At one moment, the title character winds up face to face with a striking white peacock, a creature as rare as she. Though a number of actresses continue to work in Hollywood after reaching the age of 50, not many can claim to have an impressive filmography from that point onwards. (Not everyone can be Meryl Streep.) For any movie, from the US or abroad, to put an older woman in the spotlight and to surround her with an intentionally no-frills story and world is extremely hard to find nowadays. The story told in Gloria is not heavily plotted, nor is it full of shocking, heart-wrenching twists; its charm is that it’s content to be a low-key, intelligent character study.
Paulina Garcia plays Gloria, a 58-year old woman working a fairly dull office job who lives alone after getting divorced. She has kids, but they’re all old enough to have left the house and started their own families. Her life of solitude is one that, it seems, she doesn’t want to handle, so she goes to singles mixers to meet people, if not a new special someone. But she does meet someone, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), at one of these mixers. Quickly, their relationship becomes passionate, but only for a short while; it’s clear that, as besotted as he is with her, Rodolfo’s reticent to let his own children know that he’s dating someone new, whereas Gloria’s more than happy to introduce him to her family.
In many ways, Gloria functions as a short story brought to life. The film’s world is deliberately minimal, as is what background we learn about the title character and her past. Garcia brings the character to life, inviting us to imagine what that nondescript middle-aged stranger you stand next to on the elevator to the office or walk past on the street does when no one else is looking, but the script (by Sebastián Lelio, who directed the film, and Gonzalo Maza) rarely tells what’s happening, just shows it. (Even the moment with the peacock, which is arguably the most obvious moment of metaphor in the film, is dialogue-free.) Garcia, thankfully, is a gifted enough performer that the act of watching Gloria think, figure out what her next step will be, becomes something fascinating to watch. What’s more, Gloria’s decisions throughout the film, even the more catastrophic ones, make sense for the character in the moment. It’s always a bit perilous, in independent films operating inside a simulacrum of the real world, to stretch characters or choices beyond credulity to the point of frustration. Gloria never reaches, or comes near to approaching, that point.
Hernández is a fine and winning counter to Garcia, though she’s onscreen in just about every shot, dealing with the day-to-day nuisance of having rowdy, mentally unstable neighbors; attempting to reach out to her blasé family members; and more. A number of their scenes are memorable mostly because Lelio doesn’t shy away from depicting their intimate encounters. Gloria’s truly a standout character, especially in her sexual interactions, because she seems more strident and unwilling to be passive. She may look mousy and unassuming, but it’s because Garcia transcends that visual stereotype in her performance (and Gloria becomes a fuller, more developed character through the script) that watching the character’s journey to further self-acceptance is so rewarding.
Gloria is, like its title character, a mild and unassuming trifle on the surface. This film, Chile’s entry in the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar category (though not a nominee), celebrates the joys of being comfortable in your own skin. At one point, late in the film, the movie can’t resist busting out the Laura Branigan song of the same name (sung by a Spanish singer this time), and Gloria ever so slowly bursts out into dance. It’s awkward, slightly ungainly, and totally singular. We’re not meant to laugh mockingly at Gloria’s rhythmic display; instead, we must accept it as being part of who she is, an imperfect expression of self, but a confident one nonetheless. The same goes for this insightful, incisive character piece.
— Josh Spiegel