This review was originally published on February 11th, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Berlin Film Festival.
Most older viewers I know – let’s say 40 and over – look at Lena Dunham’s half-shrugging, half-shrewd “Girls” as a fascinating little terrarium in which the mating habits of the young are rendered in somewhat alarming miniature. Do young people today really have sex like that? With people they don’t seem to like that much, and who don’t seem to like them all that much in return? No one is supposed to view the show as strict sociological reportage, but “Girls” has struck such a resounding chord with viewers of all ages, that it must be onto something, perhaps something we’d rather ignore if only we could. Sex sells, even when it’s masquerading as young people just telling it like it is.
In that context, writer-director Sebastián Lelio’s striking, unself-pitying and at times deeply funny character study “Gloria,” which screened in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, is something of a wonder. The Gloria of the title – played, with the perfect balance of restraint and unself-consciousness, by Chilean actress Paulina Garcia - is a 58-year-old divorcee with a good job and a grown family; she’s close to her children, though she’s always the one who has to take the initiative to see them. She lives in an attractive apartment complex that isn’t completely problem-free: Her druggy, unbalanced upstairs neighbor saves all his crazy tantrums for the middle of the night, and a skinny hairless cat – whom even devout cat lovers might find unappealing – keeps sneaking into her flat, having taken a shine to her even though she’s decreed that his pointy, denuded tail looks “like a mouse’s.”
It seems, though, that Gloria would like something else out of life – maybe a man, because, well, why not? She frequents a nightclub filled with other people her age, paunchy, graying men and carefully made-up women who have put on clingy dresses and high heels in an attempt to entice them (but also, perhaps, to please themselves). Gloria drinks a little; she flirts audaciously from behind her oversized glasses. One night, a courtly but shy fellow named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) notices her, and the two strike up a conversation quickly followed by the kind of impulsive, potentially ill-advised sex that you might see on “Girls” – except their bodies, as we see them later (and as shot, tactfully though honestly, by cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta), lack the firmness and roundness of even the most “imperfect” young bodies.
Where’s the line between being desperate for a man and simply yearning for one? “Gloria” finds its way toward an answer, and without ever calcifying into a manifesto. Rodolfo has only recently divorced - Gloria’s split happened 13 years ago - and he’s getting used to a new body, thanks to gastric-bypass surgery. He seems to be crazy about Gloria, but he’s also needy and elusive. And he runs a fun park, with paintball as a major feature – a potential dealbreaker right there.
Gloria perhaps has too much patience with him, or perhaps not enough; with human beings, who can ever calibrate the proper amount of care and tending? Gloria herself can be annoying and petty, though she’s also admirably sensible. Sometimes she looks agelessly pretty and vibrant; other times she just looks old, in the way that any of us can when we’re tired or depressed or haven’t eaten right. She humiliates herself by getting drunk and sleeping with the wrong guy (self-abasement has no age limit.). She listens, with a sense of WTF wonder, as her loyal housekeeper spins out a fantastical story about the origins of their humble housecat (legend has it that the lion on Noah’s ark sneezed out two of them, one from each nostril.) These are the things that make up her days and the days that make up her life, and somehow, Lelio keeps us wondering: What’s going to happen to Gloria next? The beauty of the mundane is what gives the picture its narrative drive, and its vitality.
I recently heard someone describe “Gloria” as a midlife-crisis drama, which stunned me. In the most convenient terms, I guess that’s what it is. But what Lelio and Garcia pull off here is so delicate and sturdy that it defies such easy categorization. At the risk of beating the “Hollywood would never think to give us a picture like this” drum, I have to say that Hollywood would never think to give us a picture like this. They will most certainly, however, choose to remake it (even some of the most taciturn critics covering the Berlin Film Festival have loved this movie). “Gloria” is joyous in the slow-burning way. Apparently, there’s life – and sex – after ages 30, 40, 50 and probably beyond. It can bring a sense of wonder but also some stupid, unpleasant surprises. That’s the story of love, and also the glory of it.
SCORE: 8.7 / 10