Opens Fri., Feb. 7 at Sundance and Meridian. Rated R. 110 minutes.
Gloria sings along to oldies on the car radio. Everybody does—especially in movies—but for Gloria, a divorced lady nearing 60, singing along seems like an especially cherished private celebration. The rest of her life is less well-ordered than those well-crafted pop songs: Her grown kids are kind but aloof; her new romantic relationship is mystifying; and this hairless cat keeps showing up in her apartment. Gloria, Chile’s official submission to the Academy Awards (it didn’t get nominated), is the film that comes out of this very specific character, and it succeeds because of its well-chosen vignettes and a remarkable lead performance.
Paulina García—a veteran of Chilean television—plays the title role, and she builds a small masterpiece out of Gloria’s behavioral tics. García understands this woman from the heels up: the guarded smile at social dances, conveying her interest in meeting someone but also her wariness at getting duped; the habit of idly cleaning crumbs from the table of her son’s home; the forced casualness of ordering a drink at a bar when she suspects she might have been abandoned there by her date. Gloria has a couple of purely sexual encounters during the film (the movie is admirably nonchalant about suggesting that people over 50 might enjoy a fling or two, and unembarrassed about depicting such flings), but her main romantic interest is a recently divorced ex-Navy retiree, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández). He’s boyishly delighted by Gloria’s sense of fun, but his adherence to a certain code of machismo has him hopelessly at the beck and call of his ex-wife and two adult daughters. Formerly tubby, Rodolfo has had gastric bypass surgery and is just beginning to try out his life as a chick magnet. Maybe he misses his protective layer, or he still lacks willpower; whatever it is, he keeps disappointing Gloria.
Director Sebastián Lelio fills Gloria with colorful detail, to the point of occasional pushiness. We didn’t need to see Gloria encounter a peacock at a garden party to infer that she herself might be ready to bloom, for instance. But he and García have created a character so richly imperfect and fully inhabited that her trajectory remains engaging despite the occasional overstatement. By the end, she’s earned her own song (for ’80s pop-music fans, the choice is obvious but still exhilarating); and this time everybody else gets to sing along, too.