Film Review: “Gloria” — A Rare Film That’s Smart and Dead Right about Middle Age

“Gloria” explores better than any movie I’ve seen how, when middle-aged divorcees become a couple, they are still affected by their relationship with their ex-spouses and children.

Gloria, directed by Sebastián Lelio. At the Kendall Square Cinema and other screens throughout New England.

Paulina García stars in "Gloria."

Paulina García stars in “Gloria.”

By Gerald Peary

For her homework preparing to star in the Chilean film, Gloria, Paulina García (winner of Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival) was asked by filmmaker Sebastián Lelio to read Cassavetes on Cassavetes. The character she plays in this winning drama is certainly in line with many Gena Rowlands portraits in the cinema of director John Cassavetes: raw, unsentimental, and changing scene to scene, human identity akin to improvisatory jazz. In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott said it well of Gloria: “Her life is a familiar jumble of pleasures and frustrations, her personality a weave of moods, foibles, and admirable traits.”

Protean as Cindy Sherman, García’s Gloria reads different scene to scene, from, on a good day, perky and sexy to, at a down moment, drawn, tired, slouching toward old age. From Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman to Rowlands in Woman Under the Influence to Giulietta Massina in Nights of Cabiria to (an intentional homage from Lelio) bespectacled Dustin Hoffman in drag in Tootsie.

By day, Gloria, in her mid-50s and divorced, works in a Santiago office, seemingly to pay the bills. She never talks about her employment, good or bad. When she’s on the phone, she’s wanting to converse with her adult son and daughter. Both seem fond of their mother, but her son has his own child to worry about. Her daughter is consumed by her new exotic lover, a tall Swede skiing his way around the world. So Gloria is a bit lonely. But she doesn’t fret. Her love is music. She sings along with sentimental pop tunes on her car, knowing all the kitschy words. In the evenings, she wanders into a local singles club, meant for 50s and older. The sensual bassa nova is in the air, and Gloria dances confidently by herself, arms swinging high, in the middle of the room. Occasionally, a man will come over. If she likes his style, the way he holds her, she’ll go home with him. And be OK the next day.

Filmmaker Lelio is 39, but he’s smart and dead right about middle age. Gloria has as much right to a hearty sex life as someone far younger. She can have just as much fun in bed. Like a college coed, she’s allowed to have casual affairs, if that’s her want. And like her daughter, she can fall foolishly for someone who just doesn’t seem right. That’s Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), the recently divorced owner of a theme park (an odd profession), who dances gamely, makes love skillfully, and, a bit after their one-nighter, actually calls Gloria for a date. And soon he is reading to her mushy poetry (much like the lyrics of her favorite mainstream songs), and, surely too soon, declaring his deep love.


Paulina García (center) in “Gloria.”

When young people get seriously involved, they bring into their relationship not only themselves but their relationship with their parents. Gloria explores better than any movie I’ve seen how, when middle-aged divorcees become a couple, they are still affected by their relationship with their ex-spouses and children. At his most intimate moments with Gloria, Rodolfo will be summoned by his always-on cell phone to deal with his guilt-tripping daughters. He’s a slave to their whims. And Gloria brings Rodolfo to a party where the guests are her son and daughter and her former husband and his new wife. Gloria is cozy with her family and ex-family and virtually forgets that suffering, ignored Rodolfo is in the room. Finally, he runs off from the party without telling Gloria. He does this several times, abandoning her.

Gloria and Rodolfo probably shouldn’t be together. After the sex, they are so different. Filmmaker Lelio watches their relationship dispassionately, as they stumble about, break up, come together again for another absurd try. Without me saying how she gets there, Gloria circles back to where she began, dancing, dancing. And the song being played is Gloria. Not the splendid Van Morrison version, immortalized by Patti Smith. The other platinum-certified one, also great pop poetry, done by Laura Branigan in 1982: “Gloria, you’re always on the run now…I think you’ve got to slow down/ before you start to blow it/ I think you’re headed for a breakdown.” Check out Laura performing it, in tight leather, under a disco ball.

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.

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