Although it’s far more modest in story and scope, Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria is probably a better film than any of these, and the subtle, magnetic and striking central presence of Paulina García surpasses them all in terms of individual performance. It’s a movie hung completely upon its lead character, and García’s Silver Bear award from the Berlinale is a deserving testament to Leilo’s unfussy and unobtrusive directorial approach.
Gloria is a divorcee in her late fifties. She lives by herself in a flat below a very loud, raging depressive, and aside from keeping engaged in her two adult children’s lives, she likes to regularly visit a disco night in what appears to be a hotel bar, where many couples and singles of her own generation gather to drink and dance.
The film’s distinctive opening shot sets the standard: a long zoom over the heads of the middle-aged dancing multitude towards Gloria, who turns away from the bar and heads into the throng, with a look that will later reveal independence, mischief, modesty, a little sadness, and plenty of strength. And those wide-rimmed glasses, of course. Their inclusion is one of those rare touches of costume design that seem to define a whole character, to draw a person’s entire history together, tie them up like a bow, and present them to a perceptive audience.
As the plot goes through its largely cliché-free motions, we never leave Gloria’s side. There is both humour and pathos in the film’s portrayal of a cautious and occasionally weary middle-aged romance, but crucially there’s a lot of blunt reality too. There’s plenty of room in the story to consider the passing of time, failed relationships, new beginnings and such like, but also these characters have real lives to live, they can’t just sit and ruminate. They have fallen into roles that don’t reflect the more energetic tendencies of their natures, and so their relationship is a negotiation between the lives they want rid of and the possibilities that are realistically open to them.
Gloria’s face is unreadable during the touching and comic moment when her new boyfriend Rodolfo recites her an unusual love poem; she’s been bruised in the past and doesn’t want to waste time – haven’t they both been through too much for earnest love poetry? She’s drawn to him, but at their age there’s no room for folly. She faces all these life questions with a deadpan gaze and sparkle in the eye, and yet underneath we can occasionally see the signs of struggle. After all, she’s been alone for more than a decade.
Her new relationship, and the liberated feelings it stirs, seems to have called attention to the generational divide between herself and her modern, young, functional children. During a birthday meal that reunites her children with their estranged parents, she is the liberal and accepting anchor who supports her pregnant daughter’s plans to move halfway across the world, from Chile to Sweden, to raise the unborn child with its globetrotting mountaineer father. Her ex-husband, on the other hand, drunkenly objects. In fact, it’s the elder males in Gloria who seem to childishly shrink from every challenge that Gloria herself rises to. She identifies more with the resolve and confidence of the young, and as such the film suggests that liberation is more of a mind-set rather than a privilege of youth and exclusion zone for the ageing.
The screening I saw of Gloria was one of the Picturehouse chain’s ‘Silver Screen’ events, when they offer retirement age folks a few quid off their tickets. It was packed, and it had been sold out the previous evening too. Interest in Gloria is obviously considerable among a certain age group, and I can see why – it doesn’t subscribe to the mainstream view that the details of sex and romance can only carry a movie if its protagonists are young and conventionally beautiful. I’d love to see this film play to a younger audience, about the age of Gloria’s grown-up children or even younger.
Those of us in that age bracket (myself for instance) ought to be interested, because it tells us a lot about what we fear may be on the horizon, the danger of feeling worn out and stuck, wrestling internally about what’s worthwhile and what’s wasteful. It’s an excellent comic drama with a tight focus and a great human energy about it that’s all Gloria’s, bursting out from behind the wide-rimmed glasses and walking away with every scene.
Words: David Hamilton-Smith