Women of a certain age are typically left to predictable roles in films. They might appear as a punch line (menopausal spinster) or part of an ensemble (aunt or mother, nearly always with an attached husband).
The titular character in Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, however, is not desperate or the victim of some scary movie-style compulsion. Instead, Gloria, played by Paulina García, is a single woman who works a not-terribly-fulfilling office job during the day and wants to get out of her apartment at night. Gloria presents her situation 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 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.
When the couple puts together an actual relationship, the audience is deeply invested in Gloria’s well-being. So, when problems arise, we want them resolved as much as she does. Her self-sufficiency is appealing, but so 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 it. 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 can’t reach.
These shifting possibilities are underlined by the film’s background details, the locations where Gloria looks for options, and especially musical scenes that pepper the narrative. Gloria’s nights out dancing and 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. Still, these appear in between glimmers of joy that buffet her relentless persistence. Gloria will not sink into a sinkhole of near-retirement surrender. There’s no certainty that she will find any 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.