There are so few serious dramas about middle-aged women that it seems churlish to complain about “Gloria,” a movie that drew strong reviews out of the Berlin Film Festival and was Chile’s official Oscar submission’s this year.
But I will anyway.
Sebastián Lelio’s paean to resilience has much to recommend it. Unfortunately, Paulina Garcia’s strong performance and an upbeat ending can’t completely make up for his heavy-handed start.
Lelio, who co-wrote with Gonzalo Maza, goes overboard establishing how lonely and marginalized the title character is. There seems to be no end to the awkward humiliations for Gloria (Garcia) under his camera’s gaze: the turned heel and subsequent wobble at the club, adult children that barely humor her, the neighbor’s hairless cat that has taken residence in her apartment, and so on. We get it: It’s hard to be a woman in your late 50s looking for love.
And Gloria definitely wants to get lucky.
We first see her in a Santiago club of middle-age folk, circling the floor with a drink in her hand, eyes bright behind comically large glasses. She goes home alone that night, but on a later visit she catches the eye of a fellow club goer and playfully shimmies in front of him.
Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) is attracted to her independence and joie de vivre, and can’t seem to be believe a woman as attractive as Gloria would be interested in him. Despite his recent gastric bypass surgery, Rodolfo still thinks of himself as the fat man he used to be.
Another key difference: He only recently separately from his wife, whereas Gloria has been divorced for more a decade. You see Gloria take in that news and its romantic implications, but she doesn’t let it deter her from pressing forward with the relationship.
Alas, Rodolfo’s past keeps getting in the way. He has a hard time insisting his ex and their daughters stand on their own two feet, and he doesn’t want to tell his children about his new relationship, while she tries to bring him together with her own children.
When Gloria brings him to a family birthday celebration, things do indeed go horribly wrong. This finely wrought scene casts her family in a new light and raises ticklish questions about her defunct marriage. Why is her ex pawing their daughter with such remorse? And how many other men has Gloria introduced to her children? Maybe they are more protective of her than it first seemed.
We never really get our answers, as Lelio isn’t interested in dwelling on Gloria’s past any more than she is.
After taking a break from each other, Gloria and Rodolfo go away for an even more ill-fated holiday that ends with her alone on the beach, and no money to pay the hotel bill. Here again, the film raises questions about Gloria’s behavior: Has she found herself in this type of predicament before? Will she be able to rebound from this latest romantic setback?
Rest assured, she does rebound — spectacularly. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Gloria exacts her revenge on her former lover with paintballs. Garcia does an exceptionally good job Gloria’s simultaneous sadness and exhilaration after the confrontation. It’s not long before she’s dancing along to the title track.
Lelio deserves much credit for choosing a middle-aged woman as his subject and for portraying her story so unflinchingly. He does not shy away from showing naked middle-aged bodies, or from acknowledging that people in that age bracket still enjoy sex — just as much as they crave intimacy.
I only wish he hadn’t clobbered us over the head with Gloria’s lonely marginalized existence before guiding us to the resilient ending. By its uplifting conclusion, you may feel as bruised as Gloria herself.
Even as you hum the movie’s title track as the credits roll.
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