'Gloria': The starting-over story features a star turn

'Gloria' actress Paulina García delivers an amazing performance in the film.

Roadside Attractons
Gloria (Paulina García) decides not to settle for later-life loneliness in Sebastián Lelio’s ‘Gloria.’

“Gloria,” the Chilean Oscar entry for best foreign film, is about a woman in her late 50s who lives on her own and wants more out of life than loneliness. Divorced for more than 12 years, Gloria Cumplido (Paulina García) has two grown children and a grandson she dotes on. But she’s not ready to be put out to pasture just yet. Her favorite activity is hitting the Santiago singles scene and dancing the night away.

That’s how she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Herndández), who is somewhat older, distinguished looking, and also divorced with adult children. The difference is that Rodolfo’s ex-wife and children are continually pulling him into complications. He may seem staunch, but, as Gloria discovers during their ensuing courtship, he’s a weakling in matters of the heart.

The film’s central attraction is García’s performance, which could easily have lapsed into coy theatricality. (Her acting won the Silver Bear at the Berlin festival.) The fact that so many of her effects are understated must be due, in part, to the tactful ministrations of the co-writer-director Sebastián Lelio. He frames Gloria as a flesh-and-blood woman and not a caricature. We are watching a star performance, not a star turn. It’s easy to see how Hollywood would have mucked up this same material. Let’s hope no one is trying to remake “Gloria” in La-La Land.

Not much chance of that happening anyway, since for decades Hollywood has been averse to featuring women over 50 in starring roles. The nice thing about “Gloria” is that, despite its rather contrived scenario, it is unabashedly about an older woman who is comfortable with her sexuality. She still wants to be in the game, even if she can’t quite comprehend what the rules are anymore.

She has a fuller life than appearances would suggest, perhaps because she is always ready to be swept away by something. She takes yoga classes and laughter-therapy sessions. These come in handy when she has to deal with her yowling, jilted upstairs neighbor, whose amorous miseries keep her awake at all hours. She even inherits (sort of) the guy’s Sphynx cat, a feline refugee from love’s battleground.

Lelio allows us to discover right along with Gloria just what a lunkhead Rodolfo is. The fact that he runs an extreme-sports park – a place where cowardly types pretend to be daredevils – should have been her first big tip-off that something was amiss with this guy. In his own life, he is anything but extreme – except in his kowtowing to his ex.

Gloria gives him ample, perhaps too ample, opportunity to reform himself. She does this not only because her own welfare is at stake but also because, despite everything, she genuinely cares about him. She has an emotional generosity, an essential amplitude of spirit. We know that, whatever happens with Rodolfo, she will be all right.

“Gloria” is a starting-over story that never quite picks up a head of steam. Lelio paces the action as a series of sketches, and the hit-or-miss quality of the material makes for a bumpy ride. Rodolfo’s woes (which, for a time, become Gloria’s) become increasingly repetitive. Were it not for García’s performance, Gloria might have turned into a bedraggled bore. Fortunately, there’s always something to look at whenever she is on screen, which is most of the time. She becomes something she never intended to be – a heroine. Grade: B (Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and language.)

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