It began when I realized how rarely I see a halfway decent female character on the big screen in 2014. Looking around, I see a lot of female supporting characters, most of them shallow and frivolous, most of them fulfilling flawed definitions of “beauty,” and most of them just… well… supporting male characters. Where are the admirable leading roles for women this year? Are there any that don’t expect those characters to fulfill the superficial standards of Hollywood glamour?
I’ve found a few, but most moviegoers seem to have overlooked them. That’s why they’re the “contestants” in the 2014 Looking Closer Beauty pageant.
We find the third in a film set in Chile. Gloria, a Chilean-Spanish film from director Sebastian Lelio, begins in a crowded club and then zooms in on a 58-year-old woman.
A lot of people are likely to stop reading this review right there.
They’ll probably conclude that they’re not interested in such a character.
And why should they be? American movies have trained us to pay attention to young people. They have trained us that, when it comes to main characters, men are more important than women. Our imaginations have been injured by — this may sound extreme, but I think it’s true — American cinema’s idolatrous exaltation of youth, sex, and masculinity.
The more experience I have with movies and with moviegoers, the more I find troubling parallels between our care and compassion for human beings in the world around us and the limited curiosity we have about characters who are different from ourselves. In her book The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit reminds us, “To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”
Perhaps Solnit has read the great Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner, who wrote,
If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces, but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
Granted, artists who want to make a living at their art will learn that it pays to give audiences what they want. And most moviegoers aren’t interested in films about 58-year-old women… especially if that woman speaks a foreign language.
But artists aren’t the only ones who suffer when audiences have such narrow ranges of interest. The people whose stories are never told — they suffer. And the audiences who fail to grow in their appreciation and respect for characters different from themselves — they suffer just as much, if not more, as they aren’t aware of the heart condition slowly taking hold within them.
Okay, I’ll step off the soapbox now. I’ll speak from personal experience. I found Gloria to be one of the most absorbing and original films I’ve seen this year.
Yes, that lonely woman in the middle of that busy nightclub — the one looking for love through glasses so large and round that several critics have noted her resemblance to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie — held my attention more than any of the steroidal superheroes dominating the box office this year.
And I’m not the only one. Gloria currently has a 99% “fresh” rating among film reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes, and 83% positive among reviewers at Metacritic. Maybe that will help kindle some moviegoers’ interest.
Now, before you schedule a family movie night… be warned. Gloria is too intense and explicit for younger viewers. Adults only, please. (Ah, there! I suspect I have more readers’ attention now.)
Gloria gives us a very intimate portrait, one that follows this lonely soul through various states of emotional and physical undress. But it is an incredibly compassionate portrait, intent on revealing everything from her ebullient humor to her mischievous intelligence to the open wounds of her heart.
Actress Paulina Garcia commits fully to this performance, giving us a raw and complicated portrait of a woman who wants nothing less than true love, full commitment, and an enthusiastic embrace of possibility… but who, in her zeal to embrace that, ends up letting idealism guide her into a relationship with a man who isn’t quite ready to leave his past behind. Garcia’s performance is so striking, she won the Silver Berlin Bear “Best Actress” Award at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival
Gloria is quite a character. She flings herself into new things with wild (and somewhat foolish) abandon. Perhaps that zeal comes from her eagerness to escape the injuries she suffered in her first marriage, the drudgery she endures in her day job, and the nightly barrage of rage and profanity from the shouting madman upstairs. In her car, she sings whole-heartedly to romantic pop songs in her car. Given the opportunity to bungee jump, listen to her howl of delight. Somebody accidentally leaves a packet of pot on her doorstep? “Don’t mind if I do,” says Gloria.
But she’s not just a thrill-seeker. The thrills may be evidence of her need for distraction from her loneliness. Her son and daughter are grown, and we cannot miss how much it hurts her to hear how unnecessary she has become to them. She doesn’t want the end of her parenthood and the end of her marriage to mean the end of her life. She wants to savor every day, and if she’s given less-than-ideal ways to enjoy life, she’ll take what she can get.
So she’ll take Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez, looking a little like an elderly Omar Sharif), the navy veteran who looks at her across the crowded nightclub and finds what may be his last chance at a great romance. Rodolfo’s passionate. He’s adventurous. He’s willing to get to know her family, including her ex. He even tries to interest her in paintball marksmanship. He might be what Gloria’s been waiting for.
Their awkward, challenging physical relationship reflects other aspects of their colliding worlds. In scenes where Rodrigo joins Gloria’s family for a dinner reunion, we catch glimpses of how they were at their best and worst, of the strong feelings they still have for one another, of what Gloria is losing, of the respect she never fully received. And we even get a troubling hint at what might have prompted Gloria’s divorce. (It will make your heart break for her.)
In the hands of many American filmmakers — Alexander Payne and Noah Baumbach, to name two — scenes like the family dinner could easily have been played for bitter laughs, with a crowdpleasing tone of condescension and judgement. (That’s what poisoned About Schmidt, Margot at the Wedding and, to some extent, Nebraska, for me.) Sebastian Lelio has a bigger heart for his characters. He treats all of them with affection and respect. This is gracious filmmaking.
And he’s smart enough to know that cutting ties with the past isn’t necessarily the wisest or the most responsible thing to do. Admirably, Rodolfo maintains some sense of responsibility as a father, and compassion for the woman he once called his wife as she slips into extremes of distress. Who can blame him for trying to do right by them even as a promising new opportunity opens up for him?
This is, of course, about much more than Rodolfo and Gloria. This is about Chile itself. How does a nation with a legacy of oppressive dictatorship and violence turn the page when it remains so entangled in the failings and unfulfilled promises of its past? Is it fair to anybody to try and clean the slate and start fresh?
Needless to say — this isn’t a film where love conquers all. In fact, love complicates things badly. Gloria needs to find a way to be fully herself regardless of the interests of a man. Rodrigo needs to find a future in which he isn’t adding new failures and complications to his already messy legacy.
I won’t spoil what happens — best for you to discover that for yourselves. But it’s not spoiling anything to tell you that you will probably warm to this odd and unglamorous character. You’ll come to appreciate her expressions, her wit, her imagination, and her courage. As A. O. Scott wrote in The New York Times,
One of the delights of “Gloria” is that its richly detailed realism is fuel for thought: about Chile, about men and women, about how the cycles of family life have and have not changed as a result of sexual liberation and consumer capitalism. But Mr. Lelio, who is closer in age to Gloria’s children than to their mother, is wise enough to avoid overthinking or didacticism. He is interested, above all, in showing Gloria exactly as she is, which is beautiful.
And maybe young Mr. Lelio’s healthy curiosity and admirable respect will prove contagious. I admit, I didn’t take much notice of Gloria when the film first showed up in theaters. But I’m grateful for the enthusiasm of others who took the time to investigate and bring this film to my attention. I appreciate any artist — and any reviewer — who helps heighten my understanding of beauty.
And that’s why Gloria is the third “contestant” in my 2014 Looking Closer Beauty Pageant series.
If this film sounds intriguing to you, well… be warned: I’m not promising you the feel-good movie of the summer. Moviegoers’ mileage will vary. But down the road, I suspect you’ll remember Gloria. She might remind you of someone you know — a friend or a family member — and make you ask new questions about her. She might make you stop and notice a stranger and wonder about her story. She may even inspire us to see ourselves in a different light — the value we have even when others don’t give us respect, or when they fail to notice us at all.
Careful — she might even make a few of us more curious about movies we don’t normally bother to see.