Whenever Hollywood, in its infinite predictability, deigns to treat the subject of advanced middle-age, it does so in such broad terms as to skirt impropriety, if not outright offense. Basically, old people in mainstream movies are played either for comic yuks, as infantilized, sexed-up geriatric assholes, or as infantilized, de-sexualized pill-popping matrons who serve as mere placeholders in some grander drama. In neither instance is age depicted as a specific human condition of adulthood, a moment in life’s journey. Rather, old people are just big, whiny kids, devoid of a complex inner life.
Gloria, the new film by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, is a triumphant corrective to the lame idea that old people have few concerns beyond Metamucil, Viagra and bucket lists. On its surface, the film is a romantic comedy about a woman in her late 50s (Paulina García) and the tumultuous affair she has with a former military supplier turned amusement park owner, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a man who may or may not be capable of breaking away from the psychological clutches of his needy ex-wife and daughters.
But Gloria is so much more than this familiar plot device. García, a marvelous actress capable of registering a universe of emotion with a single look, gives her character a depth and breadth that is stunning to behold; thanks to her performance, Gloria becomes a kind of middle-age coming-of-age story — the portrait of a woman, not in mid-life crisis, but simply in crisis, and seeking to wrangle love and meaning from the lonely circumstances of her life.
The film opens and closes with scenes of Gloria dancing, alone, and — not to ruin things — but what happens between these moving bookends is a subtle progression toward self-discovery. Sometimes the lessons learned are painful, wrenched from the hard truths of romantic betrayal. As played by García, Gloria is no wallflower, though she is a vulnerable and wistful woman, given to mistakes of judgment and desire. She is, in other words, completely human.
Director Lelio shows admirable economy in giving us Gloria’s story, filming with a swift precision that is often abrupt in its transitions from scene to scene but always engaging. The film is neither heavy handed nor overly timid about its subject matter — the frank portrayal of sexuality is refreshing, and Gloria’s discovery of pot smoking is never played for easy laughs — and it finds a subtle balance between its comic and dramatic elements. Hardly a scene exists where García is not the center of attention, and her actions and reactions become the real source of the movie’s strength. When she cries, we cry; when she laughs, we laugh.
Earnest, honest and touching, Gloria is the sort of sleeper that, given exposure, has the power to transform independent cinema. It deserves an audience, and Roadside Attractions should be commended for taking the risk of bringing it to the U.S. market. Whether you are young or old or somewhere in between, you could do worse than putting this one on your bucket list: It’s a lovely film.
GLORIA: Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Written by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza. Cinematography, Benjamín Echazarreta. Editing, Lelio and Soledad Salfate. Starring Paulina García, Sergio Hernández, Fabiola Zamora and Diego Fontecilla. Roadside Attractions, 2013. R. 110 minutes. 5 stars