Produced by rising Chilean force-to-be-reckoned-with Pablo Larraín ("Post Mortem," "No"), Sebastián Lelio's fourth feature, "Gloria," has proven one of our most pleasant Berlin Film Festival surprises. While films focusing on female protagonists have not been in short supply during this and previous Berlinales, many of them featuring strong central performances and a realist style, Santiago-set "Gloria" is marked out by two key differences that set it apart from, and above, many surface-similar films.
58 and sporting thick glasses, a la Dustin Hoffmann in "Tootsie," Gloria lives alone, having divorced the father of her two grown children over ten years prior. She works in an office during the week, stays in touch and on good terms with her son and daughter, and goes dancing by herself regularly, though she doesn't always return alone. She is perhaps a little lonely, but it's nothing she can't handle, and it's clear from the outset she does not regard herself as some sort of tragic heroine. Actually, she trusts herself most of the time, blames herself when she does something blameworthy, and then ultimately forgives herself and moves on. She doesn't cast herself as a victim, even when she may actually be one—she has agency. We can't stress enough how refreshing and unusual it is to have a complex, rounded character shown on screen who doesn't hold some deep reserve of self-hatred or worthlessness—it's little short of revelatory.
As endlessly watched as she is in this film, Gloria is an endlessly watchable creation—a wonderful example of an actress melting into a role, and a co-writer/director with almost superhuman levels of sensitivity and empathy for his characters. She's allowed to be as many different things as a person can be (and to range from pretty to haggard and back again) and still be strongly, absolutely herself, which makes it completely impossible not to root for her. In fact, her ultimate act of revenge, more mischievous than malicious, had the audience at our screening clapping and cheering as though she'd just punched Hitler. In script (co-written by Gonzalo Maza), casting and performance, the film really never puts a foot wrong forward except in a slight slackening of pace for a spell in the final third. But we can't stay mad at it for long, as it then culminates in such a lovely uplifting moment of deserved unselfconscious happiness for Gloria, on the dancefloor again with her eponymous song (disco fave "Gloria" by Umberto Tozzi) belting out, that when we finally cut to black, we felt a real wrench to be leaving her. Not because the story was unfinished or any issues left unresolved, just because we'll miss hanging out with such a peculiarly wonderful, ordinary woman. [A-]