Audiences are programmed to expect escapism in movies about romantic relationships, whether they be foregone happily-ever-after comedies or doomed-to-death tragedies. But Sebastián Lelio's Gloria—Chile's official Oscar submission—insists upon unsettling realities without either stomping on its hero's indomitability or tacking on a deus ex machina.
Socially active in Santiago, Gloria (Paulina García) is 58, years divorced, and unashamed of enjoying single life to the best of her ability. Part of what makes García so beguiling in the role are her naturally sad eyes, which seem to droop even when she's beaming. To look into García's face is to see the movie, a loving character study, in miniature at any moment: Gloria refuses to be your stereotype or a writer's stock character. She's complicated, like you: she has dark nights of the soul despite a willful optimism that, this time, she's gonna make it after all.
"This time" means Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a somewhat older ex-Navy man she picks up on an evening out. The pair embark on a relationship as excitedly sexual as it is romantic: if Gloria was ever a shrinking violet, she's long past those days. Rodolfo's puppyish recitations of Claudio Bertoni poems bode well for a relationship that seems to be a great fit; they could be one of those smiling couples in a magazine ad targeted at people of a certain age.
But time doesn't freeze, and relationships get real: as the two unpack their baggage for each other, they discover the ways they'll have to work at hanging on to each other. Both have adult children and exes that complicate their lives. For all his purred devotion (promises, promises...), Rodolfo remains unhealthily at the beck and call of his ex-wife, at least from Gloria's point of view. Every time he pulls a poorly timed disappearing act on Gloria, it's a dagger in her heart.
What gives Gloria the rhythm of life is its stringent heroic point of view: we wake up with Gloria, follow her to her unfulfilling job, hang out with her and her family, go out on dates with her, and observe her in quiet introspection and party time (the latter, as in life, being sometimes distressing to behold). Lelio and co-scripter Gonzalo Maza also thoughtfully depict contemporary Chile. They don't bend the reality of life in Santiago to suit their story; they simply remember how politics and urban influences subtly line our paths, whether they be student protests in the street or Rodolfo's worrying past as a seeming Pinochet loyalist.
The film's doggedly realistic subtleties do put a weight of dullness on the scene-to-scene movement of the film: I'd be lying if I said it were always scintillating. On the other hand, whenever the story reaches for catharsis, it stumbles into cliche, including in a love-it-or-hate ending that, for my taste, is a little too on-the-nose. All the same, García rises above any failings to make Gloria a 110-minute anthem for the women Hollywood forgot.