Saturday 19 October 2013

At the LFF: "Gloria"

And they say there are no great roles left in cinema for women over a certain age. The Chilean drama Gloria - one of the hits of this year's Berlin festival, directed by Sebastian Lelio and produced by the team behind Post Mortem and NO - is a character study that transcends its initially narrow focus to follow its protagonist into some surprising, compelling places. It opens with scenes from the everyday reality of its eponymous heroine (Paulina Garcia), a fiftysomething divorcee in contemporary Santiago: there are brisk twirls around the city's singles scene, yoga classes and self-help workshops, and negotiations with a son and daughter caught up in lives of their own. Outside of an ongoing dispute with a noisy neighbour, this is - by Gloria's own admission - "a quiet life", but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve examination, and Lelio acknowledges as much by keeping his camera close to a woman who would ordinarily risk fading into the background. 

There's already something admirable about the manner in which the film permits its heroine no false glamour (or, indeed, much vanity): when Garcia takes off her Deirdre Barlow specs and lets down her hair, she still looks like an amenable secretary, or one of the friends your mother might invite over for a coffee morning. Yet where certain directors currently trolling world cinema would treat the prospect of over-50s sex as a horrorshow of wrinkles and erectile dysfunction, Lelio handles Gloria's couplings with low-level paintball mogul Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) with the utmost dignity and respect. This pair approach one another with courtesy, and make love with tenderness - which, admittedly, may be no revelation to audiences who've lived through this - and Lelio and writer Gonzalo Maza are genuinely interested in what such a couple might talk about before and after the sex act itself. 

By the midpoint, an extended family reunion, Gloria appears to finally have it all: a new man, the company of loved ones, a grandchild on the way. We may, however, note that while the heroine's openness - to new experiences and those around her - leaves her well-placed in some respects, it leaves her vulnerable in many others; this is a rare film to acknowledge the phenomenon by which women in middle age remain receptive to the world, where even those men who weren't hopelessly closed-off to begin with start to shut down in some way. There is, we learn, a third party in this relationship - Rodolfo's mobile phone - and a sticking point emerges in his inability to use it to tell his offspring he has a new girlfriend. Without losing sight of Gloria's needs and desires, Lelio's film allows us to see exactly why Rodolfo does what he does - a stand which will make Gloria one of those awkward date movies that'll only leave couples picking sides and arguing the toss over any post-screening dinner. 

It remains quite the ride getting there, all the same: the second half will see our previously mild-mannered heroine start to lose it as her own world appears to close down, such that even a plastic puppet skeleton glimpsed in a shopping precinct comes to assume the heaviest of significances. The close-up approach has pleasing narrative consequences: right up until the closing moments, which feature the most transcendental use of a Laura Branigan song the movies have yet given us, we simply don't know what lies around the corner for Gloria, and what therefore is to become of her. As a result, this is one of the few films I've seen in recent times to only get more involving with every scene - and because it asks its leading lady to at all stage embody all possible consequences and outcomes, it yields the most all-encompassing and multidimensional female performance since Tilda Swinton in 2008's Julia, allowing Garcia in a little under two hours to run the gamut from mousy, warm and sensual to angry, zonked and defiant. She's a keeper; so too is Lelio's remarkable film.

Gloria screens on Sun 20 at 6pm in NFT1, before opening in selected cinemas from November 1.

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