Gloria, the eponymous lady at the center of Sebastián Lelio’s award-winning Chilean drama, is a divorcée of “a certain age”—that age being somewhere between middle-aged and “not quite ready for the Denny’s Early Bird special.” Between her Sophia Loren Collection glasses and her elementary school librarian hairdo, there’s little about Gloria (played by noted Chilean actress Paulina García) that makes her stand out in a crowd. But under the ordinary surface, there’s a repressed 20-year-old just itching to get out. Unwilling to give in to menopause and retirement and all the other things looming on the horizon, Gloria packs her days and nights with distraction-minded activities. She goes to yoga class, attends laughter therapy sessions, shouts along to romantic ballads on the radio, goes bungee jumping, hangs out in dance clubs and tries to hook up with as many members of the opposite sex as possible (which turns out to be a fairly healthy number).
Gloria doesn’t spend a lot of time introducing us to its main character. This isn’t a first-date situation. Lelio’s sensitive romantic drama simply drops us into her life and lets us discover who she is over the course of time. Which is probably appropriate because we get the idea that maybe Gloria isn’t so sure herself who she is. To its credit Gloria doesn’t treat its heroine like a confused sad sack, desperate for some sort of How Stella Got Her Groove Back makeover. Gloria just wants her life to keep moving forward. Her husband has moved on and gotten remarried. Her kids are all grown up. They’ve got their own complicated lives now. So where does that leave Gloria? Trying very hard to patch the suddenly obvious holes in her life.
Eventually our gal sets her sights (and pins her hopes) on Rodolfo (longtime Chilean actor Sergio Hernández), an “almost”-divorced businessman who takes a shine to the free-spirited singleton. But things don’t necessarily go according to plan. If there ever was a plan to begin with. “We’re all a little surprised by the twists and turns of life,” says Gloria at one point, grasping for prescience and maybe searching for her own personal moral.
Gloria isn’t overly concerned with plot movement. There are no grand character arcs or tectonic shifts in storyline. It’s a character piece, pure and simple. There are moments when the film starts to feel aimless, drifting though Gloria’s life without clear direction. But a measure of patience and maturity on the part of the audience will pay off nicely. Microcosmic and painfully realistic, the film doesn’t provide a lot of clear-cut answers, but it does stir up a lot of important questions. When do we stop living for others and start living for ourselves? Does life give us second (or even third) chapters? At some point are we afforded the opportunity to make all new mistakes, or do we just keep repeating the old ones? As the story goes on, revealing more and more of what’s going on inside of our bespectacled romantic, the emotional connection to her grows tighter. A lot of it boils down to the empathetic work of García, who is ... well, let’s just go with glorious. She won a well-deserved Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival for this one. She’s pitch-perfect as a woman caught between strength and weakness, love and loneliness. She manages to communicate a wealth of information with a small smile or a tiny frown. At the same time it’s refreshing to see an older female character neither ashamed of nor defiant about her sexuality. It just is. That’s emblematic of a lot of things in Gloria. They just are. But put the right audience member in front of the movie screen, and I suspect the film’s delicate mixture of pathos and self-deprecating humor will strike a very deep nerve.