Produced by rising Chilean force-to-be-reckoned-with Pablo Larraín ("Post Mortem," "No"), Sebastián Lelio's fourth feature, "Gloria," proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises at last year's Berlin Film Festival. 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 by two key differences that set it apart from, and above, many surface-similar films.
Firstly, the rigor of the approach—lead actress Paulina Garcia is not only in every scene, she's in every single shot. And having a divorced mother of grown children, in her late 50s, be the subject of such an obsessive approach is nothing short of transgressive in how it makes central the kind of character who is so often invisible, or at best relegated to background importance. Secondly, and perhaps most surprisingly, Gloria is smart and kind and fundamentally a happy person, and it's hard to remember the last time we saw a drama about one of those. It sounds like faint praise, but it really isn't: Gloria is as real and true and interesting a character as we've ever seen, but she is neither stupid nor desperate nor haunted by a terrible past nor battling some dreadful addiction or affliction. Gloria is a normal, ordinary woman, and like most normal ordinary women, she has moments when she's completely extraordinary and weird. As she goes through the tribulations of a love affair, suffers the departure of her daughter and fends off the advances of a neighbor's hairless cat, things go right and things go wrong, but Gloria responds in her own unique yet utterly relatable way. By the end, her humor and resilience, and her unwillingness to take herself too seriously, means our initial liking for her blossoms into a kind of love.
58 and sporting thick glasses, a la Dustin Hoffmann in "Tootsie," Gloria lives alone, having divorced the father of her two grown children more than 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 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.
And it's a sensibility that extends to the whole film: just as Gloria doesn't need some glaring fatal flaw or some manic pixie stylings to keep our interest, the film rarely resorts to melodrama or exaggeration to keep us engaged in the story. Gloria meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a paintball park owner and recent gastric bypass recipient (that comes across less screwball in the film, honest), at the dancehall and starts a relationship with him, but his tendency to walk to the heel of his dependent daughters frustrates her. Her pregnant daughter decides to leave the country, her son celebrates a birthday, she reconciles with Rodolfo for a holiday to Vina del Mar that goes awry... we're aware this doesn't sound like the stuff of great drama. However, these encounters and interactions play out with such truth and feeling that the narrative feels rich with incident and full of compassionate wisdom. And Lelio doesn't shy away from physical details either—there are several instances of full-frontal nudity and some fairly explicit sex scenes that are not just "adult" but grown-up in how non-judgmentally they are presented.
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 last third. But we can't stay mad for long, as the film then culminates in such a lovely uplifting moment of deserved and unselfconscious happiness for Gloria, on the dance floor again with her eponymous song (disco fave "Gloria" by Umberto Tozzi) belting out, and it 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-]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Berlin Film Festival.