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BERLIN – Hardly the most richly served of moviegoing demographics, smart middle-aged women will give a warm embrace to Gloria, making it a seemingly surefire contender for significant art house acceptance. But it’s hard to imagine anyone with a heart and a brain not responding to the quiet delights and stunning intimacy of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s account of the personal evolution of a 58-year-old divorcee, played with scrupulous honesty and intelligence by the wonderful Paulina Garcia.
A large part of the cumulative joy of this movie is considering all the ways in which the story might have been mishandled. Midlife sexual desire, second-chance romance, the hunger for companionship, the challenging path toward self-reliance — these are all potential minefields ready to set off explosions of mawkish cliché. But Gloria is a work of maturity, depth and emotional insight. There’s not a single false note here to push the uplifting empowerment or resilience angles, or the conclusion that having a man is not a requirement in order to feel complete. Yet those nonstrident feminist themes emerge organically, without the need to be articulated.
The title character is first glimpsed at a Santiago dance club populated by similarly middle-class mid-lifers. She gets pleasantly tipsy and flirty with an old acquaintance, yet fails to seal the deal. Gloria shuffles home alone not only to endure the screaming rants of the bipolar stoner living upstairs, audible through the ceiling, but also to find his whiny hairless cat in her apartment. In one of many touches of sly humor, this ugly animal appears to have decided that Gloria’s best option is to become a lonely cat lady.
Still attractive and well put-together, but in a way that suggests a lack of vanity or the standard terror of aging, Gloria holds down a decent job and invariably is the one to make the effort to see her grown children. Her son Pedro (Diego Fontecilla) is a single father of a kid whose mother is out of the picture, while her daughter Ana (Fabiola Zamora) teaches a yoga class and has a budding relationship with a Swedish ski enthusiast.
Divorced more than a decade ago, Gloria is much too level-headed to sit around moping in self-pity, but clearly something is missing. That threatens to change when she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), a soft-spoken gent with a puppy-dog air, whose marriage ended more recently. The owner of a small funpark offering paint-gun battles and bungee jumps, he is in the process of restarting his life after gastric bypass surgery and dramatic weight loss.
There’s a pleasing economy of means throughout the film, but particularly in Lelio’s way of chronicling their fast-blooming romance. This is complemented by the candor with which cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta covers the sex scenes, observing their aging bodies with neither judgment nor embarrassment.
Gloria is reinvigorated by the relationship yet is not the type to get all girly and airborne, even as Rodolfo reads her love poems in bed. She’s aware that he comes with baggage, and even the vintage ringtone of his cell phone is a hint of his ties to the past. The two needy grown daughters he supports financially are a noose around his neck but also evidence of his own dependence; he drops everything to run whenever they call. He also declines to “complicate” things by telling them about Gloria. But Rodolfo’s weakness becomes impossible to ignore when, feeling shut out of family reminiscences during Pablo’s birthday dinner, he reacts by slipping away silently, humiliating Gloria.
Much of the movie’s second half is given over to Gloria resolving to cut her losses and shut the door on the sweet but spineless man who keeps begging for a second chance. When she relents, and agrees to a resort weekend, the look of helplessness on his face even as he tries to ignore a freshly arisen crisis back home is both touching and pathetic.
A lot of women put through the deflating situations Gloria experiences would crumble. But in Lelio and Gonzalo Maza’s perceptive script, the character retains dignity and behavioral credibility even through the messy episodes that signpost her quiet catharsis. Onscreen for the duration in a story seen entirely from Gloria’s perspective, Garcia is remarkable, not least for the rigorous unshowiness and integrity of her self-possessed performance. She sets the tone for a gently humorous melodrama that’s refreshingly grownup, which is a rare thing.
The realness of the central character extends to her relationships with friends and family, particularly in the subtle signs of friction softened by love with Ana. And while Gloria’s ex (Alejandro Goic) obviously had his shortcomings as a husband and father, this is not a movie that condescends to its protagonist or to its female audience by making sweeping generalizations that men are weak and women are the emotionally heroic ones.
Chilean social context is sketched in with just a few brief verbal or visual nods to government disillusionment, popular unrest, corruption and the escalating cost of living. But the personal world depicted here is a universal one.
In addition to Echazarreta’s close camerawork and the fluid editing of Lelio and Soledad Salfate, this gorgeous character study is aided immeasurably by well-considered music choices. Watching Gloria sing along to sentimental Latin pop while driving is an especially lovely touch in a movie notable for its absence of silly sentimentality. And her generation is neatly defined by songs that bookend the film, with Donna Summer’s disco classic “I Feel Love” near the start, and at the end — what else? — Umberto Tozzi’s ecstatic late-‘70s Italian evergreen, “Gloria.” As a concluding note, it’s perfection.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Fabula, Muchas Gracias, Nephilim
Cast: Paulina Garcia, Sergio Hernandez, Marcial Tagle, Diego Fontecilla, Fabiola Zamora, Antonia Santa Maria, Coca Guazzini, Hugo Moraga, Alejandro Goic, Liliana Garcia, Luz Jimenez
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Screenwriters: Sebastian Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Producers: Juan de Dios Larrain, Pablo Larrain, Sebastian Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Executive producers: Juan Ignacio Correa, Mariane Hartard, Rocio Jadue, Andrea Carrasco Stuven
Director of photography: Benjamin Echazarreta
Production designer: Marcela Urivi
Costume designer: Eduardo Castro
Editors: Soledad Salfate, Sebastian Lelio
Sales: Funny Balloons
No rating, 108 minutes
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