Gloria peeks into a woman’s journey inward for the ultimate revelation: the discovery of her true self.
In the first scene of Gloria, its titular heroine carries a glass through an adult-singles mixer, halfheartedly shimmying to disco tunes and making unsuccessful small talk with an old acquaintance. It’s a scene of small indignities, but as Gloria (Paulina García) weaves through the awkwardly-dancing couples, she radiates a low-key, resolute optimism that makes her a palpable presence in the crowd. There’s no question someone will notice her; we already have.
A Chilean-Spanish coproduction that won García a well-deserved Silver Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival (yet was somehow inexplicably shut out of the race for Foreign Language Oscar), Gloria isn’t a film of particular velocity; this is less a journey of Gloria’s self-discovery as it is our discovery of her, and so its two hours are dedicated to illuminating her through minor gestures and grace notes. Unfortunately, we’re still in a film landscape where movies so directly centered on a woman of a certain age are rarer than they should be. Rarer still are the films that don’t treat that age as a ticking clock of approaching tragedy, let alone those that follow its subject with the care and dimension of Gloria.
Gloria’s desire for love finds its most direct conduit in Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), who’s smitten with her at a singles gathering. Their love affair is steamy, and though the camera observes them with some dispassionate pragmatism, including his post-gastric-surgery girdle, there’s more than enough chemistry to carry the day. But for Gloria, the real intensity comes not from sex or even from bungee jumping, but simply from being seen with fresh eyes. Her family loves her, but they bear the little family martyrdoms of sometimes wishing she hadn’t stopped by without calling. Meanwhile, Rodolfo sits on the couch reading her love poetry, which alternately amuses and astounds her—and every shift in García’s face is a tiny revelation about Gloria’s deep-seated reservations about love slowing warming. But Rodolfo’s family is as needy as Gloria’s is self-sufficient, and age hasn’t yet made him wise. He has a tendency to bolt from situations in which he feels out of control, which quickly forces Gloria to decide whether he’s worth adding to her list of compromises.
Those compromises are everywhere: director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio deftly sketches Gloria’s world with the many tiny no-win scenarios on which a life gets built. (She supports her daughter’s love affair with a long-distance boyfriend, only to hear her announce she’s moving to Scandinavia.) But one of Gloria’s smartest decisions is how hard it resists limiting those scenarios to any one realm, either romantic or familial. Her search for passion isn’t restricted to any one role or even associated with action; one of her freest moments happens drunk on a playground spinner, a centrifugal portrait of a hopeful Gloria living in the moment, her face held proudly upturned against the bright and blurry night.
These beats unfold with minimal context—and sometimes, minimal consequence—lending them a deeply personal immediacy, so the moments of Gloria that resonate most will largely depend on what you bring to the table. There’s a particular anxiety in an airport farewell where Gloria hastily parks and races back inside for a shot at a longer goodbye. Her ongoing trouble with a hyperaggressive man upstairs draws a thread of tension over scenes of her domestic tranquility, a thriller threatening to break out any second for those who’ve experienced nightmare neighbors.
But her conflict with her upstairs neighbor confounds expectation in its very ordinariness and ultimate lack of a clear arc. This, too, is a necessary part of the whole. Gloria revels in its absence of clean endings, and though its enthusiasm for Gloria is unabashed—there are several scenes in which the camera’s an adoring passenger watching Gloria sing along to the radio—it’s equally unflinching, stopping well short of making her a paragon or a vessel for a higher ideal. She drinks too much in times of stress; she revels a little too much on the phantom family goodwill that lives in the remains of her cordiality with her ex-husband. There’s a quietly dismal scene in which she wakes up after a hard-drinking night out and has to carry on business as usual with the concierge while hungover and barefoot. But when she’s diagnosed with a medical complication in the film’s third act, it doesn’t feel like narrative retribution—there’s nothing to punish. It’s just another hardship, suffered by a character whose pressing humanity has made her whole and devastating in its distant, cool inevitability. It’s a melancholy note echoed in the cat that visits Gloria’s apartment; at her loneliest, she welcomes the company, but she knows it’s not hers, and it won’t stay.
Gloria grows on you one setback at a time, with a dogged determination to wring joy from the many small griefs she suffers and a slowly increasing understanding of herself. And while there are no large revelations—this isn’t one of those films—there’s a particular tension in Gloria’s inward journey, as we hope she likes what she’s found as much as we’ve enjoyed watching her get there. (This might be the rare film that frames its closing dance scene like a sinner joyously confessing and realizing they’re not sorry after all.) Heartbreaking, unvarnished and thoughtful, Gloria is the story of a woman looking for the best that life can bring her. You’ll be rooting for her to find it.