Gloria is such a lovely, simple story that it’s amazing (or depressing) that we don’t see more of its kind. An up-close look at a middle-aged divorcée figuring out her life as a solitary woman amidst an extended family and a possible new romance, this drama (Chile’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) goes a long way on the strength of its lead performance by Paulina García. She’s such a rich, layered creation that it’s a bit of a letdown that the movie around her isn’t always comparably engaging.
García plays the title character, who’s single in her 50s but refusing to become one of those people who recedes from view now that she’s no longer “young.” When the movie opens, we see Gloria at a nightclub, happily dancing and enjoying herself. Soon, she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), who’s a little older but shares her zest for living. (Other things they have in common: They’re both divorced with adult children.) Gloria and Rodolfo have been around long enough to know that love doesn’t always work out, but they’re willing to give this potential relationship a try.
In the last few years, we’ve seen middle-aged romances like Last Chance Harvey, but Gloria feels different because of its honesty about the difficulties that await adults who find new love. When we’re young, we’re hardly tied down to anything, and so a romance can give dimension and meaning to a life. But for Gloria and Rodolfo, they’ve already established their lives, and so any new person coming into their orbits must learn to adapt to what’s already there. And as Gloria discovers, falling for Rodolfo also means having to accept his strange relationship with his ex and his children, who are always calling him on his cellphone needing this, that or the other. Although she doesn’t meet these people, they’re an invisible drag on her and Rodolfo’s burgeoning love affair—not just because of the time they take up in his life but also because their consistent virtual presence suggests a man who doesn’t have good boundaries.
Director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio avoids any sort of cutesy condescension in his depiction of Gloria. The movie spends precisely zero minutes trying to hip up or validate Gloria’s lifestyle. Her office day job doesn’t seem particularly scintillating, but her journeys to nightclubs aren’t meant to reveal the “real” Gloria—merely her attempts to remain open to new experiences. Similarly, García makes Gloria’s age, which would most assuredly be the most important part of her character if this were an American movie, only part of her makeup. Confident but also searching, Gloria is looking for love, but she has control issues, which come up when her ex-husband’s new wife offers her pot. Though most would describe Gloria as being her own woman, her deepening feelings for Rodolfo highlight that she still desires companionship, still wants someone to share her world with her.
That’s why his unpredictable behavior is all the more galling. It’s best not to reveal anything, but unlike Gloria—who has reached middle-aged with her wits still very much about her—Rodolfo can’t be trusted, his pronouncements of passionate love for Gloria sometimes contradicted by his actions. But Lelio can’t quite bring himself to be too hard on this man. On the whole, Gloria drifts along on its patient, sympathetic treatment of all its characters, never more so than when Gloria brings Rodolfo along to a family meal, giving us a glimpse of the splendid people with whom she’s surrounded herself. (Even her ex-husband is a pretty great guy.)
But the film’s sweetness can too often settle into blandness on the storytelling side. As deeply felt as Gloria is, Gloria ultimately doesn’t have much of a framework to support García’s deeply sympathetic performance. (Though to be fair, the decidedly modest narrative may actually be the point.) A woman like Gloria is seasoned enough to recognize that sweeping, Hollywood happy endings don’t happen in the real world. All she can ask for is a little peace and a little comfort to get her through the day. The movie provides that, which is victory enough for her.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Writers: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Starring: Paulina García, Sergio Hernández, Diego Fontecilla, Fabiola Zamora
Release Date: Screening at AFI Fest 2013 in the World Cinema section