In the opening scene of “Gloria,” by Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio, the film’s eponymous star is alone at a nightclub. Gloria (Paulina García) makes eye contact with a few romantic prospects— middle-aged men from Santiago, Chile— but, mostly, she navigates independently, hovering on the dance floor’s peripheries. Everything about Gloria is familiar— her guts and vulnerability, her passions and instincts for self-preservation. She is a refreshing reminder that young people do not have a monopoly on the aches and ecstasies of falling in love.
A longtime divorcée, Gloria knows the lyrics to pop songs and experiments with yoga. She falls for Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a slightly older amusement park owner. Their first date entails bungee jumping and paintball. Soon, she is waxing her legs, and he is reading her poetry.
Nothing about their sex life is pitiful or saccharine. In fact, their chemistry is exceptional— so exceptional that Gloria is tempted to ignore signs of her partner’s ongoing attachment to his self-destructive ex-wife and spoiled daughters. Gloria, too, comes with a constellation of complicated familial relationships. Her children, now in their 30s, are preoccupied with their own romantic relationships. When Gloria’s son turns 30, she introduces Rodolfo to her family, including her ex-husband. The gathering ends unhappily.
“Gloria” is unique because it stars an older woman and successful because it refuse to reduce her to a Hollywood-esque archetype. Gloria is a heroine, but she also makes mistakes. To this end, Paulina García’s performance is nuanced and dynamic. Behind thick glasses, Garcia’s eyes twinkle with vitality, even as her character braves bouts of loneliness and dejection.
As much as the film is about the particulars of a certain romance, it is also concerned with a broader historical moment and the transmission of values across generations. In conversations with their peers, Gloria and Rodolfo consider the legacy of the country’s military dictatorship and the young people’s capacity to mobilize for progress, in light of tools like Facebook and Twitter. In this vein, Lelio explores the effect of technology on familial relationships. Gloria and Rodolfo are often interrupted by emails and mobile calls, which seem only to provide the illusion of long-distance connection, while elaborating parent-child codependence.
My favorite moments in this film were those when Gloria seemed in search of something bigger than a romantic “happily ever after.” When she laughed or danced with abandon, she appeared open to a more basic want and need— the impulse to self-define.
“Gloria” is a movie that prompts audiences to reexamine our assumptions about aging, gender, sexuality and family. As Gloria models with grace and humor, middle age is anything but static. So long as we are living, we are learning.
Contact Gillie Collins at gcollins “at” stanford.edu.