Hats off to Sebastián Lelio for making a movie like Gloria. Films about divorced 50-something women looking to find their later-year footing don’t get made in Hollywood, which is why Gloria was made in Chile. And it’s a departure from Hollywood’s past attempts. Under the Tuscan Sun‘s fantastical whimsy that magically yields romance and revelations about life is something Leilo has no interest in. An Unmarried Woman, which starred Jill Clayburgh back in the ’70s, is a closer comparison, but even that’s a far cry other than offering a strong, liberated woman as the main character.
In Lelio’s film, Paulina Garcia’s Gloria lives a simple unfulfilled life in Santiago as an office worker, filling her flat, unexciting role without the prospect of any upward mobility. She’s also formerly married and a mother. But now that her children are grown and embarking on their own adult lives, she’s lonely — manless with no discernible passion.
But Gloria’s not into self pity, nor does she pander for attention. Her most admirable quality is that she’s a quiet doer and willing to take chances. Most of her forays are singles meetups for middle-agers where other dislocated souls seeking second acts drink and dance to retro-pop. It’s at such an event that she meets the stately Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández) who has the commanding charisma of Marcello Mastroianni minus the looks. He’s charming enough and runs an amusement park where he takes Gloria for some aerial thrills and paintball target shooting. The pair engage in some pretty lusty and graphic carnal interludes which might cause some younger viewers to blush or look away — it ain’t pretty, but it is passionate.
Rodolfo too is a bit enigmatic, just enough to keep us and Gloria from becoming fully invested. He takes calls from his needy daughters at inappropriate junctures and seemingly denies his involvement with Gloria. “They would just think I am a crazy old man,” he shrugs when confronted. Then there’s his massive weight loss, the girdle he wears, and his strange inexplicable behavior when Gloria takes him to a family diner with her children and ex-husband.
The ingratiating charm of Gloria lies in its quiet unpretentiousness and earnest pursuit of the mystery of life and self-discovery. Leilo, who’s not even 40 and has a slim resume, is an astute observer of the ordinary much like Michael Haneke or Nicole Holofcener sans the quirky wit. As both writer and director of something so intimate and beyond the conceivable sphere of his generation and gender, his degree of insight is beguiling; from the weighty contemplation of self-fulfillment over family obligation to the dilemma of loneliness and starting over when your body is no longer an asset of attraction and the revelation that for adults heading towards their final chapters, wisdom too can be elusive.
Gloria was also the country’s official selection for Academy Award consideration for Best Foreign Language Film, but it didn’t make the short list of five, which is too bad. The other category it should have received a more serious look in was Best Actress. García is right up there with Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett, and like those two acting greats, when she has someone as complex and rich, yet fully everyday as Gloria, she bites into the character and fully becomes her. García’s performance is so real and consuming, it doesn’t feel like acting, it’s transcendence. It’s what the late Philip Seymour Hoffman made seem like such an innate and effortless reflex, like breathing.
That’s not to say that Gloria’s only somber and reflective. Leilo and García carefully imbue their heroine with a mercurial inner fire. In another decade and in the hands of Pedro Almodovar you might find her among the powerful feminine potpourri in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. And Gloria does score a moment or two of outrageous payback, comically underscored and accentuated by her face-engulfing, Tootsie-styled, too-big glasses.
Even the movie’s titular song is done in its own, Gloria-like way. Laura Branigan’s blockbuster hit “Gloria” isn’t found anywhere on the soundtrack. Instead, it’s the original version performed by Italian singer Umberto Tozzi, poetically proving that everything old can be new again.