Of all the things to latch onto first in Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, it was the dancing. Not because it was great, mind you, but because its quality changes over the course of the film. The movie opens in a single’s club for older people. It’s ageist, but lots of middle-aged people look funny when they dance. There’s a lost grace about them. The camera glides over the rickety jamboree to our heroine, played by Paulina García. She’s on the prowl for a fling.
Later, after Gloria has found someone, we’re back in the club and dancing again. There’s something livelier about the way the older actors and extras move. I don’t know if it was intentional, but it’s as if young passions have relaxed the rheumatic joints, and everyone dances with surprising elan.
For me, Gloria was all about that shift in perception: the ability to find grace in age and for Lelio and García to bestow this grace on its characters.
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Director: Sebastián Lelio
Release Date: May 9, 2013 (Chile)
There are other ageist things that Gloria undermines. As a character, Gloria may seem totally uninteresting — a middle-aged woman, divorced for many years, single, office job, shut in save for her time at the club. In most other movies, she’d be a side character. The most interesting thing that happens in her day is someone’s awful-looking hairless cat sneaking into her apartment. But there’s a rich life in there simply from the act of aging, and while Gloria’s story is not filled with obvious adventure, there’s a joy in a closely observed character study that’s about someone trying to live a life they can be happy with.
One of the best parts about Gloria is its frankness. Even though she’s in her late 50s, Gloria is a woman with needs. She dates, she hooks up, she has one night stands, she feels lost, she feels lonely, she gets tanked. The same feelings people have earlier in life persist and enlarge with time, and the same goes for those basic drives to satiate desires and, even if just temporarily, be desired.
When Gloria meets a recently divorced amusement park owner named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a conventional movie would turn their relationship into a schmaltzy whirlwind that resolves as some dumb affirmation of Hallmark card banalities. Thankfully Lelio and co-writer Gonzalo Maza don’t let them off so easy. Love at an older age is more difficult because life is more difficult, and that’s especially true for Rodolfo. He’s a rather pathetic old man tied too closely to his ex-wife and needy daughters. This friction makes Gloria suspect something is not quite right about Rodolfo even though she’s sort of crazy about him and vice versa.
García is so good as Gloria, her performance so natural and so nuanced. In one scene, Rodolfo woos his ladylove with romantic poetry. It’s adorable, and I don’t mean that condescendingly — their passion has turned each other into teenagers. Lelio holds the camera on Gloria’s face behind Rodolfo as the lines are read. Each line sets up conditional statements as metaphors for their passion (“If you were x, then I’d be y; and if you were y, then I’d be z…” ). Some lines are funny, some lines are beautiful, some lines are weird, but there’s a wonderful movement toward something transcendent, which is what this love is all about. Watching García’s face, her eyes magnified a bit by those extra-large glasses, she reacts quietly to each syllable, each word, each line as if she’s hearing them for the first time, as if she’s noticing the beauty, the weirdness, the movement and connections of the poem, or even the way the phrases hang in the air after leaving her lover’s mouth. She looks almost the same, but something about her gaze at Rodolfo has changed.
What’s also remarkable about Gloria is its frank view of sex later in life and the way it’s depicted. This is just a fact of Gloria’s life, just like a commute, going to the salon, or singing along with the car radio. She’s not ashamed of it, much like anyone her age in real life would feel, and neither is the film. There’s a funny moment that seems to acknowledge the self-consciousness that people have about their bodies as they get older and also why they shouldn’t feel so self-conscious. It’s odd that nudity on screen or sex on screen after a certain age is considered brave, as if the possibility of either ends after an actor or actress is older than 40. Yet Gloria is tasteful and playful and even sensual with it.
For all the bad things I said about the sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color, the only thing I can say about the sex in Gloria is “How refreshing.” Yes, this actually looks like two people in love having sex, and it’s all important to the narrative without being excessive. It’s great to see a relationship like this explored and shared with the same kind of openness as there would be for a younger couple in a movie. Yet younger couples have a luxury of time, and there’s a persistent sense of time waning for Gloria. One memento mori is delivered in the form of a little dance, and there’s so much said internally in the way that Gloria scowls — it’s all spite and recognition, and García gives the moment the spontaneity it needs to resonate beyond the mere cleverness of the visual metaphor.
Still, it’s not as simple as a last chance at love, at least I don’t think it is. That would be too easy an explanation for what Lelio and García have worked toward. Gloria and Rodolfo may care about each other, but I think Gloria is more concerned about comfort and, again, this idea of grace. Grace is more than just settling or conforming to an idea of how you should be at a certain age. There’s far more grace in accepting certain circumstances and being able to live in light of such circumstances. While the movie lingers a little on its way to the conclusion, I never lost interest in what Lelio and Maza were trying to say about this older generation and what wonderful things García was able to do in the act of saying. Gloria is a character I could have followed a while longer through events much less remarkable.
Gloria has a lot more resonance in Chile since there’s an entire historical and political dimension about the Gloria character that isn’t readily apparent to most foreign audiences. Gloria’s generation lived through Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, eventually ended in a referendum vote in 1988 as depicted in Pablo Larraín’s excellent No. (Larraín served as a producer on this film.) Gloria has struck a nerve in Chile, where it did great business at their domestic box office; it’s also the country’s official selection for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Women of all ages went to see the film, men went to it willingly because it’s not just some chick flick, and people of all ages have flocked to it and embraced it for its honesty.
Apparently people in Chile now refer to women of Gloria’s generation as “Glorias.” Some people have even started identifying with her directly, stating “I’m Gloria.” Even without the national identification or the historical knowledge, this portrait of later life seems so universal that I think most of us can say we’re Glorias as well.