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Moving Through Middle Age, With A Song In Her Heart

Paulina Garcia was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Actress at last year's Berlin International Film Festival for her role in <em>Gloria</em>.
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Paulina Garcia was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Actress at last year's Berlin International Film Festival for her role in Gloria.

The Chilean matron at the heart of the wonderfully unsettling comedy Gloria looks like any ordinary woman confronting the familiar dilemmas of late middle age. For other reasons, though, you may feel as though you've met her before.

The film's director, Sebastian Lelio, is up to all kinds of mischief, the least of which is Gloria's abundant hairdo and outsized spectacles, which give her a slight but unmistakable resemblance to Dustin Hoffman in Sydney Pollack's beloved 1982 comedy, Tootsie. The movie puts her through hell, but make no mistake: Gloria is a celebration.

Like Tootsie's Dorothy Michaels, Gloria is cheerful, gifted with goodwill and common sense, and supportive to a fault. True, there's a little telltale sadness about her eyes. Like many women of her age, Gloria has reached a stage in her life when the losses are incremental and the future seems lonely and scary. Her children have their own lives; work is just for making a living; after 10 years as a divorcee she still lives alone, visited only by a mad neighbor's homely cat.

Gloria is close to her family, but she's clinging to the edge of a world of which she was once the center. For a while we see her only in confined spaces: Even at the dance club where she goes to have fun and hunt for love, she seems hemmed in. Until, that is, she locks eyes with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), a handsome, age-appropriate man with whom she feels such immediate rapport that they end up in bed that night. Their naked lovemaking is candidly shot and as avid as it is awkward.

Rodolfo has the soft features, doe eyes and attentive manner of a sensitive soul. Look again: No, he's not a serial killer, but he's all kinds of trouble. Here Lelio begins to have some fun feeding audience expectations, then confounding them.

The revelation that Rodolfo is a retired marine may raise Chilean hackles — the 1973 military coup that plunged the country into dictatorship was set in motion by naval officers — but the director veers away from the political-commentary path, unless you attach significance to the fact that Rodolfo's current combat of choice, and his living, is paintball.

On an early date at Rodolfo's amusement park, the congenitally game Gloria finds herself trussed, bundled up and swung like a pendulum high above the ground. In another kind of movie, this might function as a cheap foreshadowing metaphor for helplessness; here, it also signals Gloria's openness to a wild ride.

That she will get — which gives actress Paulina Garcia a golden role in which to explore a multitude of moods. Gloria is told entirely from its leading lady's point of view, and her mobile features, shot from every possible angle, register pain, amusement, exasperation and a kind of befuddled ecstasy. This is a woman who might smoke her first joint, exhort a weak lover to "grow a pair," and finally seek a unique form of retributive justice with, shall we say, the tools at hand.

Rodolfo, you see, will turn out to be only a slightly exaggerated version of the emotionally draining screw-up many survivors of the dating circuit will recognize with a wince. Yet both he and Gloria are both bewildered casualties of a radically modernized Chile in which the demand for individual rights has displaced a more traditional emphasis on obligations.

Not that Lelio is censorious about the claim to individual fulfillment. Gloria takes a drubbing or five, but she's never less than a woman who insists on a pleasurable life of her own. Her appetite for living pulses in the music she croons along to while driving, or waxing her legs, from syrupy '70s pop to bossa nova. And yes, in the classic disco song that shares her name and lights her way to becoming, at last, the star of her own firmament. (Recommended)

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.