Paulina García is the biggest reason to see this skewed movie. One of the greatest performances of 2013.
It’s been over a year since Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria wowed festival goers at the 2013 Berlinale, where it picked up multiple awards and turned the switch on the electric current that’s been heating art-house circles ever since. Having done her festival rounds last year, and having the honour of being ignored for Best Foreign Language possibilities at this year’s Academy Awards, Gloria has danced her way to home viewers with last week’s VOD release. I sincerely hope the film has a long shelf life in the small format because it’s senseless to believe in any long lineups waiting to see this in theatres. After all, its protagonist is a – brace yourself – 50-something female divorcee and the movie is a magnifying glass into her isolated lifestyle as she seeks a companion. Even a Michael Haneke movie sounds more action-packed than that. While Lelio’s concept may not seem gripping on paper, his star Paulina García most definitely will – and she’s the biggest reason you need to see this skewed movie.
The film follows Gloria, a woman who has been divorced for a decade and has been frequenting local clubs for companionship. We first meet her at one of these clubs, a setting that will become the film’s cornerstone for the free-spirited. Her two kids are all grown up, her ex-husband is still with the woman he left her for, she’s got a cat that repulses her but always finds its way into her home, and the upstairs neighbor is going through a crisis that keeps her up at night. When she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) during one of her nights out, there’s an instant spark as they eyeball each other on the dance-floor. But it’s his opening line – “Are you always this happy?” – that sweeps Gloria off her feet. Her mask has revealed none of its cracks to Rodolfo, and he swoops in; continuing to charm her with bungee jumping and paintball. When Rodolfo’s grown daughters start becoming more than just a one-time interruption, Gloria suddenly finds herself not feeling so free or spirited.
It’s impossible to talk about any technical or thematic aspects in Gloria without first gushing endless praise onto Paulina García. Dominating almost every frame of the film, García has the kind of magnetism of a female Werner Herzog (indeed, the make up in this movie makes her look like Herzog’s long-lost twin sister in some shots) – which is to say that she’ll grip you the moment she first steps on a dance-floor and awkwardly flirts with the first man. Known for TV work before winning Best Actress at the Berlinale for her performance here, in an ideal and balanced world García should have the same kind of attention and success that Christoph Waltz started enjoying after being discovered by Tarantino. Cue the crickets. That improbability aside, it’s wonderful to see such a completely focused story on a female character “stuck between two chairs” as Kristin Scott Thomas puts it; the same Thomas, by the way, who retired from making movies because of the lack of Glorias in the film world. But, it would be even more wonderful if the same movie managed to balance gender politics in equally complex ways. As it stands, Gloria’s greatest heroic achievement is thwarted by the film’s biggest villain; every important man in Gloria’s life (within the context of the film) is so deeply flawed, it becomes almost embarrassing.
Thanks to this lack of balance, Gloria soars well above everyone else in the film; both as a sure-footed and independent woman, and as the antithesis to loneliness. It’s a testament to the way she’s written and performed when scenes of her singing along to cheesy lyrics are oddly uplifting, even if the message of “I NEED TO LOVE AND BE LOVED” is telegraphed more than it really ought to be. Technically speaking, the film is solid on all fronts in as much as everything is anchored by this one character. The cinematography is most impressive when the camera spins around Gloria on the merry-go-round, or when it captures the morning light while she sleeps under wrinkled sheets. And while the themes are hammered a little too strongly in certain scenes and with certain actions, Lelio does an overall fantastic job at portraying bottled loneliness. While Gloria’s realization in the film’s final moments are a little suspect when pitted against the film’s events – one question I had during the film’s closing credits was “what happens when the song ends?” – this is still a movie you should seek out the next chance you get, because it has one of the greatest performances of 2013 and it’s an excellent example of how life’s ordinary struggles can make for compelling viewing.