Review: Gloria, Sebastián Lelio

Gloria, Sebastián Lelio’s feature about a spirited older woman determined to get the most out of life, raises questions about how much happiness we afford older characters.

“My sons aren’t comfortable with this, but I’m a sexually active being, even if I don’t have a boyfriend,” said the energetic elderly woman to her (congratulatory) younger listeners. “I’m an actress and a writer. That’s why I came to live in Los Angeles instead of a quiet suburb.” I overhead that conversation while microwaving my lunch in the kitchen of our office and composing my thoughts on Gloria, and it was hard to ignore the coincidence—and the slightly patronizing undertones in the other participants’ amused encouragement.

Opening tomorrow in select U.S. theaters, Gloria is an intimate, realistic character study of a 58-year-old divorcée (Pauline García), charting the course of her passionate but faltering romance with Rodolfo, an ex-naval officer turned park-owner (Sergio Hernández). It was Chile’s official Best Foreign Language Film submission to this year’s Academy Awards, but after a stellar festival run it failed to make the category’s shortlist (one of many surprises in that department—like Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, which also explores the theme of baggage insurmountably invading a relationship). As portrayed by the inimitable García, who won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at Berlin last year, Gloria is independent, confident and irrepressibly optimistic, the life of any party. She holds an office job during the day, goes out most nights with a broad array of friends, and returns to a modest but comfortable apartment where she lives alone. It’s a happy, ordinary life, one that feels more unusual than it should.

Gloria‘s writer-director, 29-year-old Sebastián Lelio, said in an interview with Little White Lies that the impetus for his story lay in a desire “to make a film about our mother’s generation… at the film’s heart is this idea that these people have the right to live” (“onscreen,” we’ll add on his behalf, or else this discussion becomes more morbid). His mission to explore this lesser-seen cinematic subject takes him into such unorthodox territory as a handful of audaciously revealing love scenes between García and Hernández (as passionate as anything you’d see between a sprightlier couple). More than mere physical gratuity, though, Lelio’s sensitive, mature film challenges the mental zones we place the 50-and-over, at least in our cultural ideology.

A pertinent counterpoint is the newly-Oscar-nominated Blue Jasmine, whose protagonist, herself ‘of a certain age,’ resents her recently enforced singlehood with a passion, desperate to retreat from a new frontier of middle-aged possibility into her delusions of past grandeur. Where Lelio’s film is quietly celebratory, Allen’s is a middle-aged cautionary tale-come-horror story, as Lisa Schwarzbaum points out in the New York Times (“The Fear That Dare Not Speak Its Name”): the psycho-financial nightmare of a generation of women who have “never seen ourselves represented on the screen. Not really. Too scary.” Jasmine’s (and Schwarzbaum’s) fears are much more overtly socio-economic than Gloria’s, but the fact remains: Older women outside a certain acceptable box of married, maternal stability are too often presented as lonely, or despairing, or otherwise figures of tragedy. As the commenter tishgrier posted about Schwarzbaum’s article: “The overarching problem, if we accept that it’s not just women who fear being destitute in old age, is that we have almost no paradigms in our media to reflect back to us what are not doomsday scenarios… There’s a whole lot of life after youth and the childbearing years. We need to see it, hear it, talk about it to know that it does not have to be gloom and doom.”

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When Rodolfo asks a dancing Gloria, “Are you always this happy?”, she answers him honestly: no, not always. Happiness is hard work, no matter what age you’re at—indeed, the more baggage you’ve collected, the more difficult it can be to carry it gracefully. Gloria doesn’t shy away from its protagonist’s struggles to rise above her myriad humiliations and disappointments, but it lets her hold on to the joy that she is able to earn, and it’s refreshing to watch her earn it. MM


Gloria opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday, January 24, 2014.

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