Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, in its affectionate, lightly comic, yet unsparing gaze at a middle-aged woman’s day-to-day travails, offers a necessary corrective to the usual Hollywood attitude toward such subjects, one which tends to veer more toward adolescent crassness than dignified sympathy. Whether the film adds up to more than the sum of its good intentions is another matter.
With its handheld camerawork, precise editing, and sober detachment, the film takes a standard approach to character study, in which the audience is asked to draw its own conclusions about a given character on the basis of what Lelio shows us. In the case of Gloria (Paulina García), we bear witness to a woman who, having recently gotten divorced, lives alone in an apartment building, below a volatile neighbor with an apparent drug problem. Gloria works in a humdrum office job, the nature of which is never revealed. And though she still regularly sees her children, they’re all living their separate adult lives: getting married, having kids, and moving away to live with their significant others.
To stave off feelings of loneliness, Gloria also sometimes goes to a local nightclub, meeting and dancing with random men, looking for a romantic spark—and she appears to find that with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a professed recent divorcé himself. The affair between Gloria and Rodolfo makes up the bulk of the dramatic action in Gloria, and the twists and turns the relationship takes are revealing in ways both empathetic and unflattering to its subject. It appears that her desperation for a connection of any sort leads her not only to ignore potential warning signs about Rodolfo, but also exhibit glimmers of a clingy streak that doesn’t always take Rodolfo’s feelings into account in certain situations.
Amid Lelio’s episodic structure, Gloria allows us to bask in its titular character’s aura. Even those oversized glasses Gloria sports through much of the film aren’t enough to detract from the inner beauty she exudes: an emotional transparency and, most crucially, a sense of dignity even through the buried pain. How much of this is Gloria merely putting an “all is well” game face for the public? Only we, of course, have the privilege of seeing her, for instance, singing along to Chilean pop songs that express her yearning at given moments, or castigate Rodolfo for abandoning her at her dinner party even after she essentially ignored him just before he quietly ducked out. Even at her character’s most unappealing, however, García imbues Gloria with a warmth that makes her a sympathetic presence throughout.
Though García’s performance is enough to hold the vignettes together, it isn’t quite enough to redeem a handful of dramatic miscalculations, especially in the home stretch, that ultimately makes the film seem slighter than it ought to have been. A few scenes—most notably, one in which Gloria, Rodolfo, and a couple friends discuss Chilean youths and the future they represent for the country—seem heavy with thematic implications that ultimately go unexplored. More problematic, though, are a few late revelations relating to a major character that not only turns that character from a believably rounded human being into a deck-stacking one-dimensional villain, but also contrives for Gloria a catharsis that seems too pat in a film that had up until this point been refreshing in its sometimes brutal honesty. A liberating final solo dance set to a Chilean cover of (naturally) Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” beautifully summarizes the character’s outward refusal to wallow in her despair, but one can’t help but be a bit disappointed at how easy Lelio made it to get to that supposedly inspirational point.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 27—October 13.