“Gloria” was Chile’s official submission for this year’s foreign language Oscar — it didn’t make the cut, no fault of the film — and if voters had the eyes to see it, the movie might have made a run at best actress, too. It’s a character portrait of a kind of woman mainstream media barely notices: divorced, hovering around 60, kids grown, not especially interested in self-pity. Another country (ours, for instance) might have tried to make a feminist hero out of her or contrived a cozy romance. Director Sebastian Lelio is content to just watch her.
And why shouldn’t he, given the sneakily delightful presence of Paulina Garcia in the title role? Gloria is comfortable in her little Santiago life: She holds down an office job, has a nice apartment, sees her daughter (Fabiola Zamora), single-dad son (Diego Fontecillo), and grandson often. She has a face that looks worn with disappointment but lights up easily; behind those big, red “Tootsie” glasses is a mind both resigned to and tickled by the world. An early scene of Gloria driving to work while singing along to a cheesy love song on the radio wins you over, then and there.
Of course she’s lonely — aside from the crazy neighbor’s hairless cat that keeps sneaking into her apartment, Gloria’s most faithful companion is her housekeeper (Luz Jiminez). But she goes to singles mixers just for something to do, and one night comes home with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), a courtly older divorcee. The sex — once Rodolfo removes his girdle — is lusty and satisfying, and it will probably horrify audiences under the age of 30.
If the movie’s about anything, it’s about the tension between what we owe our families and what we owe ourselves. Gloria’s daughter is preparing to move to Sweden with her ski-bum boyfriend, yet the frayed tenderness she feels toward her mother and the estrangement she still feels toward her father (Alejandro Goic) tells us how much baggage she’ll be bringing along. Gloria’s new beau has only been divorced for a year and is still attached, emotionally and financially, to his wife and grown daughters. Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza know that no one’s perfect and everyone’s human, Gloria most gloriously.
The movie quietly celebrates the daily work it takes for a person, any person, to keep dignity and humor intact when the hour gets late and the men still act like babies. A retired naval officer — the movie touches on the bruise of Chile’s political past with the right amount of pressure — Rodolfo has a macho pride that sends him off in a snit during a dinner with Gloria’s family. “Grow a pair,” she tells him, and Garcia gives the line a mixture of brusqueness and hope. The man’s a pill, but he’s all she has. Is that enough? Is it better to stand alone, even if one has the strength?
Thanks to Lelio’s direction and Garcia’s wearily lived-in performance, we see Gloria more clearly than she does, for better and for worse. What’s ultimately most moving is the heroine’s rumpled faith in the validity of her own experience. “Gloria” pulsates with music — that swooning radio pop, a gorgeous Antonio Carlos Jobim song — and it finally brings on the tune that’s been playing in the back of your head all along, not Laura Branigan’s disco version of “Gloria” but the Umberto Tozzi original. If there’s no one to dance with, do you dance by yourself? The film answers with a double-edged affirmation that lingers long in the memory and the heart.