The first and last time we see Gloria (Paulina Garcia), the 58-year-old Chilean divorcee who gives writer-director Sebastián Lelio's touching midlife crisis drama its name, she's lost in the shuffle of the dance floor -- at once buried by the world and free to roam it. Anchored by Garcia's nuanced performance, the movie explores this fragile state of being with extraordinary astuteness. It's an open-ended question whether Gloria ever finds the happiness she seeks while dodging the current of middle-aged isolation, but her constant search is a valiant and deeply involving one.
From the initial set piece that shows Gloria going about her bar-hopping single life, Lelio slowly assembles the details that define her solitary routine, drawing out her apparent ambivalence over it. In her cramped apartment, she spends more time shooing an intrusive cat that creeps into her room and trying to drown out a noisy neighbor upstairs than entertaining company. On the occasion that she does venture out, she maintains a healthy relationship with her two grown children and ex-husband. While this cycle of behavior shows contentment on the surface, Garcia's character -- typically hidden behind a pair of oversized glasses and heavy makeup -- displays a lack of investment in her surroundings that suggests she wants something more.
That void is filled with the arrival of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), another aging parent recently divorced and eager for a rebound, with whom she shares a passionate one-night-stand that gradually develops into a greater bond. Though his motives and backstory are suspicious, the seemingly tender-hearted Rodolfo's passionate exchanges with Lelio quickly accumulate emotional weight.
There's a marvelous sense of defiance to the way Lelio stages their early scenes together, conveying an atmosphere drenched in romance that rejuvenates the couple and strips away the barriers of age. In her newfound companionship, Gloria's personality erupts with energy that Lelio explores intimately by showing the couple in the nude while in the throes of their sexual reawakening. The connection is so vividly realized that it's especially tough to watch when the perfect scenario starts to unravel.
Facing another set of relationship problems, Gloria's hidden frustrations and burgeoning fear for her own mortality erupt in a series of unpredictable outbursts. Garcia's droopy face, riddled with far more nuance than anything Gloria says, defines the movie's fascinating trajectory. Rodolfo aptly summarizes her personality as "so physical, so real," exactly the pair of traits that make her such a fascinating subject.
Lelio has always applied a fair degree of subtlety to his filmmaking, which has carried the unevenness of his two earlier features starting with "La Sagrada Familia," but the tendency finally blossoms here. Gloria rarely attempts to verbalize her emotions, but Lelio finds ways to do it for her with perceptive visual flourishes, as she frequently stares down symbolic reflections of her mindset -- most memorably, when she comes across a dancing skeleton puppet at a supermall, but that's just one of several interludes in "Gloria" where music and imagery speak volumes.
By conveying Gloria's alienation so effectively, the movie taps into a greater generational anxiety that imbues the character with metaphorical value. At a dinner table conversation, one of her relatives explains that the generation of young adults reared on social networking have experienced "a revolution that's probably more spiritual" than the ones preceding it. The emerging communal energy of the digital age stands in stark contrast to Gloria's lack of firm footing -- as well as the desperation and self-delusion that results from it.
While "Gloria" may pity its title character, she gets plenty of opportunities to fight back, none better realized than when Umberto Tozzi's "Gloria" comes through the speakers at a bar and immediately refreshes her. As she jives to the tune as though the star of her own musical, the lyrics complimenting her movement ("You're heading for a breakdown/so be careful not to show it"), a cheesy pop song transforms into her personal anthem. By that point, she has earned the attention.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? One of the best-received competition films at the Berlin International Film Festival, the movie should find a home with a midsize distributor able to play up its themes to older arthouse audiences. Produced by the same team that worked on the Oscar-nominated "No," the new movie will help solidify Chile's rising popularity in world cinema.