Women of a certain age are typically left to predictable roles in movies. They might appear as a punch line (menopausal spinster) or part of an ensemble (aunt or mother, nearly always with attached husband).
Within its wonderful first few minutes, Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria cleverly highlights how unusual it is to see a post-middle-aged and pre-senior citizen woman with a sense of her individual purpose. Gloria (Paulina García) is out dancing at a Santiago nightclub. Lelio eventually gets around to letting on that she’s 58 and divorced, with two adult children she doesn’t see often. Gloria is looking to have a good time with one of the suit-and-tie men milling about looking for partners.
She’s not desperate or the victim of some scary movie-style compulsion. Instead, she’s a single woman who works a not terribly fulfilling office job during the day and wants to get out of her apartment at night. The movie presents all this as understandable and sympathetic, especially as she seeks respite from the nocturnal rantings of her deranged neighbor.
Still, nothing much is going Gloria’s way. The men at the club are duds, which leaves her to find solace in singing along with syrupy pop songs on her car radio. Then she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a slightly older retired Naval officer who’s also single with children and looking for some fun and companionship. Unlike Gloria, he’s mousy and reticent, but he’s fascinated by her brash who-cares attitude. They move carefully and excitedly into a relationship: dinners and outings and romping sex. As they have both been through the wringer of broken marriages, they have little time for illusions. Instead, they play paintball.
By the time the couple is putting together an actual relationship, the audience is deeply invested in Gloria’s well being. So, when problems arise, we want them to be resolved as much as she does. Her self-sufficiency is appealing, but so too is her desire to find more. Gloria is extraordinary, but in a way that doesn’t attract attention. She spends much of her time watching the world around her, pinching her mouth into a wry smile that’s partly wise and partly stoned. The crafty Garcia plays Gloria as an enigma, a lonely, friendly individual, her fearful courage filigreed with a self-aware sense of humor.
On the one hand, Gloria is eager for connection. On the other, she doesn’t know how to achieve those connections. Scene after scene places her outside the action, observing what others do, whether she’s flying solo at a friend’s wedding or drifting obliviously through a massive student protest march. A painfully honest reunion dinner with her children, her ex-husband, his new wife, and an agonizingly shy Rodolfo only highlights her isolation. Gloria might be able to patch things up with her ex-husband Gabriel (Alejandro Goic), but there’s something in her daughter (Fabiola Zamora) and son (Diego Fontecillo) that she just can’t reach.
These shifting possibilities are underlined by the film’s background details, the locations where Gloria looks for options and especially, a set of musical scenes that pepper the narrative. Gloria’s nights out dancing as much as a quiet interlude at a party highlighted by the singing of a gorgeous Brazilian ballad, serve as haunting expressions of Gloria’s experience.
Lelio’s film — Chile’s submission for this year’s Foreign Language Academy Award — is shaded with both a dark melancholy and a bright, getting-on-with-it playfulness. Gloria endures more than her share of spirit-crushing moments, but these appear in between glimmers of joy that buffet her relentless persistence, her will not to sink into a sinkhole of near-retirement surrender. There’s no certainty that she will find any kind of new love again, or forge some new kind of bond with children. If she’s going to carve out a happy life, it will be in her hands, not dependent on approvals from her family, friends or lover.