In Praise of Older Women

(Chile/Spain, 110 min.)
Dir. Sebastián Lelio, Writ. Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Starring: Paulina García, Sergio Hernández
Paulina García stars in Gloria. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The journey from cougar to cat lady is a fickle one. Gloria (Paulina García) might not be on the prowl for cubs as she frequents the dance floors of Santiago, but there is a youthful lust for life that runs through her 58-year-old body. This feisty divorcée approaches life with the spunk and verve of a college kid. Gloria develops a sweetly euphoric coming-of-middle-age pic as its title character embraces the freedom of adulthood.

Gloria, Chile’s official submission to the recent Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film, is a surprising and glowing romantic comedy. It’s surprising, for one, since romantic comedies (or films in general) rarely tell stories of mature women, let alone afford them the leading role. It’s the kind of movie that Pedro Almodóvar might make with a flair of kitsch and Carmen Maura, or only an actress like, say, Meryl Streep gets to make in Hollywood in films such as It’s Complicated or Hope Springs. Streep has nothing left to prove, so there’s something undeniably ballsy about taking on a Nancy Meyers movie and showing that mature actresses can have fun with rom-coms and attract an audience just as easily as the young starlets and their male counterparts can.

There’s this same commendably laid-back attitude to Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria that defies conventional filmmaking and shows that stories of love and relationships can indeed focus on both women and older characters. Gloria has nothing left to prove in life: she has a career, a family that is now branching into its own, and the freedom to do whatever she feels or wants. Gloria is the mom role transformed from a supporting character with a menopausal plotline into a leading lady whose mature soul and body anchors every frame of her own story.

Every scene of the film is from Gloria’s point-of-view as she goes through the ups and downs of the dating world. Gloria, drinking a cocktail seductively and burning up the dance floor, has a thirst for life that attracts the men in the room to her with an effortless air. One such man, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), joins Gloria for a dance, then goes with her to bed, and becomes Gloria’s partner on what at first seems like a second chance at love. Rodolfo, recently divorced, owns an amusement park and takes Gloria to do all the fun activities that kids might do on dates—paintball and such—and he feeds her youthful spirit.

The relationship is all seen through Gloria’s eyes, though, and it’s hardly la vie en rose. Rodolfo turns out to be a spineless shit. He’s juvenile whereas Gloria is young-at-heart, so putting up with such nonsense hardly seems like the best move for Gloria in her search for satisfaction. One suspects that she’s become involved with jerks like Rodolfo before when Gloria introduces her new beau to her family and the first impression goes just as poorly as one possibly can. The bar scene might be fun, but it’s probably not the best place to find a used husband.

When Gloria isn’t trying her hand at love, she throws herself into all sorts of relaxing activities like yoga, group therapy, or just singing as loud as she possibly can in her car where nobody can hear her. The most therapeutic remedy for filling the void of free time left by an empty nest and a departed husband, however, comes from a foe Gloria encounters early in the film. It’s a neighbour’s cat--an ugly, shrivelled, hairless thing that wanders into her apartment every now and then to say hello. Gloria shoos it away and calls it an ugly rat, but she only truly seems at peace when she is in the cat’s presence. There’s a notable sequence quite late in the film where Gloria decides to let the cat stay. Gloria seems more relaxed in its presence and looks at the homely thing anew with an air of serenity, familiarity, and acceptance. Like the cat that slinks away from its unruly owner, Gloria doesn’t need a man to take care of her: she’s happiest on her own, free to sleep and eat as she pleases, and she no longer has to answer to anyone who doesn’t give a damn about her feelings.

Lelio takes the audience through Gloria’s journey with a subtle hand for comedy and an even finer eye for honesty. Gloria’s soul-searching premise could easily be prone to cliché and condescension, but there’s something intimately relatable to Gloria. Its heroine—flawed, vulnerable, and human—isn’t looking for something too far out of the ordinary. As Gloria finds a palpable sense of self-acceptance and decides to celebrate her unattached freedom by dancing like nobody’s watching, Gloria finds in its buoyant finale a morale that is both specific and ageless. Any viewer—female or male, young or old—is bound to walk out of the theatre floating on air after Gloria throws her arms in the air and busts a move with reckless abandon to the tune that shares her name.

Every frame of this film is as warm and likable as it is thanks to Paulina García’s exceptional performance in the title role. García is truly radiant as Gloria as she waltzes through life attracting and seducing men with her young-at-heart spirit. It’s a performance that often demands the actress to call attention to the maturity of her body, for Gloria features one or two nude scenes that would never find their way into a Hollywood film, but Lelio and García embrace the depth of character that exists between laugh lines and behind Gloria’s hipstery eyeglasses. Gloria’s energy and spirit are wholehearted and winning thanks to García’s excellent performance that takes the audience through Gloria’s amusingly sweet journey of self-discovery with natural, effortless air. Why fewer romantic comedies don’t choose to tell such stories is unimaginable, for a heartwarming film like Gloria will have audiences praising older women.

Rating: ★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)

Gloria screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Feb. 23rd.