A divorced woman in her late 50s recaptures her life in Sebastian Lelio’s pitch-perfect, terrifically written “Gloria.” Were this an American film, the situation of a middle-aged woman refusing to give in to loneliness would likely be fashioned into a comedy starring Meryl Streep or Maggie Smith, but Lelio refuses to adopt the industry’s ageist slant, presenting a woman (magnificently played by Paulina Garcia) of undisguised sexuality seeking to be the center of life for the man she loves. Perceptive and unerringly sympathetic, “Gloria” has the makings of an arthouse sleeper.
A subtitle for the pic could be “The Promise of Life in Your Heart,” taken from Tom Jobim’s classic “Aguas de Marco” (Waters of March), beautifully incorporated in one scene. Like the song itself, “Gloria” rejects sentimentalism, descending in its rhythms to locate the core emotions and then satisfyingly honoring that promise. Lelio’s thoroughgoing understanding of music’s function, how it consoles but most of all elides with mood, is matched by his sensitivity to Gloria’s search.
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The camera never leaves Garcia’s Gloria, and why would it? From the opening shot of a disco for middle-aged singles, where she shyly toys with looking sexy behind her oversized glasses (only rarely a barrier to connecting with the world), viewers want to know more about this woman of fitful confidence. Divorced from Gabriel (Alejandro Goic) for 13 years, she has two adult kids, Ana (Fabiola Zamora) and Pedro (Diego Fontecilla), but they have their own lives and don’t call much. Gloria still works, so it’s not that she has nothing to do, yet she feels marginalized in the sphere of her loved ones.
At the disco she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), and she’s the one to make her interest known, via expressive eyes. He’s been divorced just a year and is new at this game; she takes him home and they have sex (once he takes his girdle off). And not the “keep it under a sheet so the sagging flesh doesn’t show” kind, but the sort of lovemaking usually reserved for body doubles, with no effort to hide cellulite, paunches or natural carnality.
Rodolfo expresses his love for Gloria, yet he hasn’t told his two adult daughters or his ex-wife, all still dependents financially and emotionally. When Gloria takes him to Pedro’s birthday party, which includes her ex and his wife, Rodolfo can’t deal with being an outsider in their midst and leaves without so much as a goodbye. Her response when he later explains his actions: “Grow a pair.” Exactly.
Later at the hairdresser, Lelio uses a snippet from Mahler’s Adagietto, deliberately recalling “Death in Venice” — not because he’s suggesting Gloria’s fate will equal Aschenbach’s (Gloria’s hair dye doesn’t run), but because it marks the one time she feels old. The moment, like the emotion itself, is fittingly brief, and despite some inner wounds, Gloria is no helpless woman — needy yes, though not excessively so, and mercifully not defeated. The end scene, set to Umberto Tozzi’s original version of the song “Gloria,” is enormously gratifying.
Ever since his debut with “The Sacred Family,” Lelio has been exploring what he’s referred to as “family as a sacred trap,” and he remains just as concerned with this dynamic of obligation and restraint, and the individual’s sense of self within that necessary constriction. Gloria wants to be more involved in her kids’ lives, but she also needs an existence separate from theirs in which she’s the focal point.
At a time when people keep distancing themselves from the word “feminist,” it’s wonderful to see a film that expresses the necessary vitality of the concept in such a discerning way. Credit must also go to Lelio’s co-writer Gonzalo Maza, whom he’s worked with since “Christmas.” The two have an excellent sense of humor, and “Gloria” contains several sparkling absurdist scenes, especially when Gloria’s cleaning lady (Luz Jimenez) tells the apocryphal story of how cats were made on Noah’s Ark.
The role of Gloria is a gift for an actress, and Garcia amply rewards the trust in her abilities with a fearless performance; vulnerable and lonely yet undefeated, Gloria refuses to compromise, which registers in the physicality the thesp brings to the role. Hernandez, a Lelio regular, is an ideal partner and foil, nailing Rodolfo’s conflict between desire and fear.
The camera maintains Gloria’s viewpoint, unintrusive yet omnipresent, and reflecting her state of mind without showiness. A good example is Pedro’s birthday scene, tightly shot to convey the claustrophobia of the situation. Songs are perfectly chosen, and all are subtitled except, oddly, “Aguas de Marco.”