Film Review: Gloria

Captivating, complex portrait from Chile of a woman of “a certain age.”

Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria is a wholly engaging, nuanced film about a woman of “a certain age” (played by Paulina Garcia), and it’s a winner on many fronts. Unlike so many movie depictions of mature ladies—assuming they’re visible at all—Gloria is a three-dimensional, completely plausible human being.

Set in Santiago, Chile, this character-driven, episodic picture centers on the evolving relationship between a longtime divorcée in her 50s and Rodolfo, a 60-something, recently divorced amusement park owner (Sergio Hernández). Despite their respective baggage, each is seeking love the second time around. Both have ex-spouses, grown children and careers, though it’s never entirely clear what Gloria does in her office cubicle. Of the two lovers, she is the more cautious and intelligent. She is game and flirtatious but always watchful, maintaining a safe distance.

Like Lelio’s three earlier films (The Sacred Family, Christmas and The Year of the Tiger), Gloria is refreshingly devoid of cant or, indeed, any special pleading. It is matter-of-fact in tone, perhaps nowhere more pointedly than in the sexually explicit scenes displaying the protagonists’ aging and less-than-perfect bodies. But in this movie the portrayal of senior sexuality is not despairing, absurd or sentimentalized. It just is, though admittedly there’s a comic moment in the couple’s first encounter as Rodolfo has to remove his truss before any action can begin. Credit must go to cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta for his taste and restraint.

There are so many wonderful details, starting with the giant glasses Gloria sports that are fashionable and flattering, yet serve as a kind of mask too. The film is told from her point of view and the frequent close-ups vividly underscore her conflicted feelings. All she has to do is look at her adult children, for example, and one senses her reservations about their lifestyles, even as she tries hard to view them without judgment.

The acting is layered. Gloria is generally likeable but at moments self-absorbed and not altogether appealing. Her total lack of compassion towards a neighbor’s unprepossessing cat is a clue. But, more serious, she invites Rodolfo to her grandchild’s birthday party and then largely ignores him as she cheerfully reminisces with her ex while they pore over old photos. 

Feeling like a third wheel, Rodolfo leaves and later Gloria lets him have it, shooting from the hip. Her response is totally unjustified, but thanks to Garcia’s uncanny ability to mesh with her character, her outburst is nonetheless believable. In lesser hands the whole sequence would not ring true. Garcia, who is a very well-respected Chilean director and actor, is the perfect Gloria and it’s no fluke that Lelio wrote the script with her in mind. It is their first collaboration.

Hernandez, who previously appeared in Lelio’s debut film The Sacred Family, gives a terrific performance too, evoking the classic lousy catch, his hapless, hangdog appeal notwithstanding. Though he loves Gloria (within limited parameters), he is still tethered to his ex-wife and especially his totally dependent, unemployed grown daughters, who are constantly calling and demanding his attention.

Contemporary family life is handled deftly throughout—from the civilized relationships among exes to their thwarted and/or infantilized adult children who, for whatever reasons, can’t quite cope. Gloria’s son (Diego Fontecilla) is raising his child alone, his partner having jumped ship, while Gloria’s trendy daughter (Fabiola Zamora) is planning to elope with her Swedish boyfriend, a skiing enthusiast, whose income is negligible.

A central theme—not unlike the ideas explored in The Sacred Family—is the ongoing battle between family ties and personal fulfillment. But nothing is heavy-handed here. Indeed, subtlety is the operative description of the acting, direction, and script written by Lelio and longtime collaborator Gonzalo Maza.

Consider the film’s throwaway reference to Chile’s uneasy economic and political landscape, with secondary characters commenting in passing on corruption and inflation, while in another scene a protest demonstration that is never explained serves as a backdrop. Snippets of absurdist comedy are scattered throughout as well, most notably Gloria’s housekeeper (Luz Jimenez) explaining how cats came into being on Noah’s ark.

But perhaps most impressive is the use of popular music throughout the film not only to place the story in its era, but also as an expression of escape and longing. As she drives, Gloria sings along with the radio and the final image of her warbling to Umberto Tozzi’s original version of “Gloria” does indeed hint at a feisty spirit. Gloria is not defeated. At the same time, she’s not exactly victorious either and that’s perhaps the most interesting element here.

In fact, there is no indication that she has really changed. But the idea that characters take a journey and evolve is an American filmmaker’s obsession. By contrast, it’s never known if Gloria’s relationship with Rodolfo was special or, more likely, another encounter in an ongoing, quotidian life that has not been transformed, but simply lived.