by Matt Levine
Like most of us, Gloria is made of contradictions: a 58-year-old divorcee living in Santiago, Chile, she’s lively and lonely, resilient and vulnerable, hopeful and world-weary. Though her past is only hinted at in oblique fragments of dialogue and behavior, she seems to have been mistreated by men too many times to rely on their companionship; and yet, if she can find anyone worthy, she wants to share the later years of her life with someone she loves. The engrossing yet somewhat muted Gloria follows its eponymous character from a bemused distance, clearly sympathetic to her frustrations yet requiring the audience to come to their own conclusions about her sometimes ambiguous personality.
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Producers: Luis Collar, Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín
Writers: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Cinematographer: Benjamín Echazarreta
Editor: Sebastián Lelio, Soledad Salfate
Cast: Paulina García, Sergio Hernández, Diego Fontecilla, Fabiola Zamora, Luz Jiménez, Alejandro Goic, Liliana García
Premiere: February 10, 2013 – Berlin International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: January 24, 2014
US Distributor: Roadside Attractions
The facts of Gloria’s past and present are revealed to us in brief, sometimes discordant fragments, as scenes abruptly cut off and leap into the next with intentionally rough transitions—ably conveying the tumultuous yet spirited nature of Gloria’s unpredictable life. She’s been divorced from Gabriel (Alejandro Goic) for about a decade, though she still sees their two children, Ana (Fabiola Zamora) and Pedro (Diego Fontecilla), often; though her kids only rarely return her phone calls and accept her help reticently, they’re no more distanced (and seemingly more loving) than most adults are with their parents. Gloria’s life is unspectacular: she commutes daily to a mundane office job and lives downstairs from an unstable man who screams violently late into the night. Some nights, however, Gloria ventures willfully into Santiago’s middle-upper-class nightclubs, perched confidently at the bar with a cigarette and her large red eyeglasses, scanning the crowd for potential partners; it usually doesn’t take long before someone flirtatiously invites her onto the dance floor.
It’s here that Gloria meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a shy, good-natured former soldier who has been divorced for a year and has two fully-grown daughters of his own. Bumbling yet charmingly ardent, Rodolfo admits to Gloria that he recently underwent gastric bypass surgery to counteract his obesity—a selfless honesty which suggests that their fling might lead to a lasting relationship. Their first sexual encounter is presented with similarly unflinching honesty, refusing to shy away from their belabored sound effects or bodily imperfections (including Rodolfo’s girdle); refreshingly, the movie perceives sex not as a titillating plot point, but as a human interaction both carnal and awkward.
Yet both Gloria and Rodolfo are flawed people in relatable yet significant ways. Her confidence—the adamancy with which she commits herself to life in all of its visceral pleasures—sometimes results in a selfish inability to perceive the emotions and frustrations in others. He, meanwhile, still clings to his ex-wife and seemingly leeching children, who seem to call him daily with emergencies and depend on him financially; this meek submission to his former family and his petulant demand for attention cause him to brusquely abandon Gloria on two separate occasions. Each individual viewer will relate to Gloria or Rodolfo to varying degrees; it’s a testament to the movie’s powerful characterizations that they resemble real, contradictory people, alternately lovable and irritating.
The emotional impact of Gloria is almost entirely dependent upon Paulina García as Gloria (and, less prominently, Sergio Hernández as Rodolfo): with the lack of declamatory dialogue and a sometimes-inscrutable tone, it’s up to the actors to inhabit and convey fully lived personalities. Thankfully, they are more than capable. García (who won the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival for her performance) strikes just the right balance of sadness and sexiness, imbuing her character with tremendous affability even when Gloria is at her most cryptic (as when she somberly smokes weed and stares vacantly at the ceiling late in the film, again suffering from a broken heart). She enlivens slight or overly symbolic moments with great pathos: her morning car rides to work, in which she breezily sings along to buoyant pop songs, provide tiny insights into her character’s quest for joy; and when she visits a department store late in the film and observes a dancing skeleton puppet, the look of disdain she casts upon it is both hilarious and affecting.
If this story were told in Hollywood, it would obviously take a very different form—something close to It’s Complicated (2009), perhaps (a movie that is not complicated in any way). It should go without saying that Gloria’s refusal to abide by pandering cliché is admirable; the film never judges its main character’s sexuality or exploits the emotional obstacles she faces, accepting aging and the desire for companionship as human inevitabilities. The film is a small human drama (with a tinge of comedy) that simply hopes to relate to one compelling character even as it refrains from tidily “explaining” who she is.
In the end, though, Gloria might be too unassuming for its own good; there’s very little conflict in the plot, aside from a central tension between Gloria and Rodolfo that is reiterated until it becomes somewhat repetitive. Of course, Gloria’s narrative is modest by design (thus allowing the film to pay greater attention to the characters), but one wishes a figure as engaging as Gloria were surrounded by equally dynamic storytelling. As it is, the film charts a fairly simple story arc—lonely man or woman struggles through romantic embarrassments until they cathartically “find themselves”—and disguises it with a subdued tone and austere aesthetic. The last scene of the film features an initially distraught Gloria throwing inhibition to the wind and reclaiming her individuality on the dance floor; it’s a pleasant moment since we’ve identified so closely with Gloria throughout the movie, but it’s also an overly convenient and artificially inspirational ending to a film that embraces complexity for much of its running time. On the other hand, a lovely scene immediately beforehand witnesses Gloria encountering a screeching peacock in a garden, its beautiful plumage outstretched towards her—a witty and serene moment that provides the film with one of its several unexpected pleasures.
There are intimations of thematic and dramatic complexity in Gloria. Especially interesting is Gloria’s relationship with her ex-husband Gabriel, whom she encounters (with Rodolfo in tow) at her daughter’s birthday party. With his silver-fox good looks and beautiful young new bride, Gabriel stokes a jealousy in Gloria that makes us realize how much she still cares for him. Yet Gabriel also becomes belligerently drunk very quickly, at one point inexplicably weeping and pawing at his daughter Ana; his creepy behavior here (and the fact that Ana has revealed her pregnancy to everyone except her father) suggests some kind of prior abuse, though this remains unexplored.
Thematically speaking, some critics have read Gloria as an allegory for Chile’s post-Pinochet political transition over the last 25 years. The film does feature numerous street protests and a few conversations about the country’s faltering health-care system and economic infrastructure, begging some kind of interpretation that echoes Gloria’s transition: Chile itself as an aging character, spurned by past hardships yet hopeful for the future. The comparison is interesting, but Gloria’s attempts at political allegory often seem meek and out-of-place; simply inserting a few protests and socially-minded lines of dialogue does not make for insightful commentary. There’s a difference between subtlety and laziness.
Yet even when Gloria momentarily falters, there’s always Paulina García’s performance to pull us back in. She truly is a magnetic actress giving life to a compelling figure, elevating what could have been a tepid character study into must-see territory. The director and co-writer, Sebastián Lelio (whose previous films have been well-reviewed, though they’ve received almost no American distribution), attempts a tricky narrative and stylistic approach here: to build an intimate portrait around an extremely spare storyline, with gestures, inflections, and seemingly throwaway imagery attempting to fathom a human being in all their complexity. Such films need either stylistic ingenuity or incredible performances to engross and overwhelm an audience. Gloria might be lacking in the former category, but the magisterial acting on display is more than enough to compensate.