Movies about middle-aged women are so rare that it’s tempting to praise them on that basis alone. Thankfully, the Chilean drama Gloria, which won Paulina García the Best Actress prize at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, doesn’t require much critical mitigation. Neither mocking nor quite celebrating its title character, who’s at once adorable and exasperating, the film asserts—even in the face of grim box-office realities—that menopause isn’t the end of sex or love. At the same time, though, it’s utterly realistic about the challenges of looking for love in an age group consisting almost entirely of people who’ve failed, in one form or another, at creating a viable long-term partnership.
First seen practicing both her dance moves and her awkward seduction technique in a crowded disco, Gloria (García) puts a great deal of effort into her appearance without really understanding what’s attractive, resulting in a look that seems dowdier than she must have intended. Determined not to be some sad cat lady—though a neighbor’s cat apparently has other ideas—she eventually locates a kindred spirit in Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a courtly gentleman her own age who dotes on her… most of the time. Problem is, he still has strong ties to his troubled ex-wife, continually interrupting dates and vacations with Gloria to take phone calls from her, or from his adult children on her behalf. Whether his behavior indicates conscientiousness or rudeness is in the eye of the beholder; Gloria’s eyes, however, framed behind her giant, unflattering glasses, increasingly narrow.
It’s to both García’s and Sebastián Lelio’s credit that festival audiences have been sharply divided on whether Gloria is admirable or pitiable, and on whether her perception of Rodolfo’s solicitude toward a former spouse is accurate or delusional. Either way, Gloria is a beautifully judged portrait of loneliness and resilience, equally effective whether seen as “you go girl” triumphalism or the willful obliviousness of someone for whom the truth would be too painful to endure. (A climactic sequence set to a Spanish version of “Gloria”—as made famous in the U.S. by Laura Branigan—fits either interpretation.) García commits fully to this willful, indomitable, thoroughly odd woman, making her distinctive and memorable enough to earn the movie’s use of her name as its title. Who knows—maybe the film’s modest achievement would seem less impressive if more fiftysomething women were at the center of movies on a regular basis. Fact is, they aren’t.