Sunday, February 16, 2014

Gloria (***1/2)

Directed by Sebastian Lelio


A performance like Paulina Garcia's in Gloria is difficult to appreciate properly. On the surface, it seems dictated by its physicality and carnality, which is why more sexually explicit storytelling doesn't translate as successfully in American cinema. It's been thirteen years since Halle Berry won an Oscar for Monster's Ball and still people only think about the sex scenes when they're forced to recall that performance. Sex scenes aren't at the core of Gloria the way they were with Monster's Ball, and Gloria treats its sexual elements more frivolously, without all of the therapeutic subtext. Garcia's work here is just as bold as Berry's was in 2001, but she's not the same star nor does she possess the same movie star beauty. Garcia doesn't have to depend upon the sex scenes to elevate her character, even though they do so all the same. Garcia's work here is similar to the terrific work Julia Louis-Dreyfuss did in last year's Enough Said, which also dealt with an upper-middle-aged woman dealing with complications of being single and dating at an advanced age. But Enough Said was made by the great Nicole Holofcener, an expert at extracting great work from veteran actresses. Gloria is made by Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, who may prove to have a similar ability down the road.

Garcia plays the titular Gloria, a divorced single woman who doesn't allow her age to stop her from having fun. She lives in Santiago, Chile, and often enjoys the city's famous nightlife and is not above going to a club by herself and dancing on her own. She isn't shy, she flirts a lot and enjoys talking to random men, but is wise enough to go home alone most of the time. Both of her children are adults and their lives are filling with responsibilities that stretch thin any time they might have to talk to their lonely mother. Often Gloria is calling them and leaving messages just to get them to respond to her. Her ex-husband has remarried a younger woman, and they haven't spoken in well over a decade. Her apartment is burdened by a disturbed upstairs neighbor who screams obscenities often, bangs on the floors and walls, and allows his cat to crawl onto the fire escape and continually walk straight into Gloria's apartment below. It seems the only fun Gloria seems to have is when she goes out drinking and dancing. At least on the dance floor, there is the hope of something new.

One night, Gloria is approached by an older man named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) who is completely charmed by Gloria's spirit and plaintive beauty. Rodolfo is socially awkward but adorable in his doting. They share a night of passion, but Rodolfo is moved to call her days later to have a formal date. Gloria is almost shocked to find a man who has a crush on her at that age, but as they share a meal, she finds that his feelings are pure and that makes her fall head over heels. He owns a small amusement park, equipped with a paintball field, and he's quick to show Gloria all of the nuances of the sport to Gloria's surprise. Like all people, Rodolfo is more complicated then he appears on the surface. He had gastric bypass surgery and recently lost a large amount of weight because of it, but still wears a corset to hide his flabby belly. He's divorced with two daughters, and all three women still depend on him financially while he stands helpless to fight against them. But if a little weak-mindedness is the price to pay for a man as sweet as Rodolfo, Gloria is willing to pay it, and the two of them fall into an affair of great passion that neither had thought was possible anymore.

The irony of starting a relationship while her children are in the midst of cementing their relationships through marriage and child-rearing is not lost on Gloria. During a dinner in which Gloria brings Rodolfo to meet her family - including her ex-husband, Gabriel (Alejandro Goic), and his new wife - she becomes defensive, quick to cover any embarrassing details about him. Rodolfo can feel her distancing herself, which makes Rodolfo turn further inward, his insecurities getting the best of him. Lelio keeps the focus of this film almost entirely on Gloria, but his quick, short glimpses of Rodolfo are revealing and powerful. Hernandez plays him as pitiful and heartbreaking, a sad excuse of a man who can't even manage to separate his current relationship from his past one. Lelio helps us understand Rodolfo's complex emotions, even if he doesn't ask us to forgive him for it. But this is a showcase for Garcia, who inhabits ever frame of the movie and gives a performance so terrifically self-assured and complicated. Garcia does not save her best efforts for the few good scenes, but instead spreads it out, inhabiting this sociable but lonely woman.

It's only the middle of February, but it's hard for me to think of a better performance coming this year. Paulina Garcia seems to live in Gloria's insecurities - her insecurities as a woman, a lover and a mother - and makes them feel so unbelievably apparent. Gloria is a character with a great amount of vanity, but Garcia's performance is vanity-free, shedding the clothes when necessary and understanding that the sex and the nudity can be part of the storytelling process (can someone please explain this to Lena Dunham?). Lelio smartly knows that all of the visual storytelling is apparent in Garcia's body, but more specifically in her face. Her face is more of the director than he is. While television drama seems to be peaking with male anti-heroes (Mad Men, Breaking Bad and House of Cards - to name a fraction - seem to revel in the devious nature of its protagonists), film seems to have a full understanding of how to use smart actresses for the first time. Gloria works on several different levels - as a film about love, as a film about motherhood, etc. - but all of those levels depend on the performance from Garcia, and she makes each one of them work.

Gloria was considered to be the biggest snub out of the Best Foreign Language Film nominations. It played well over the festival circuit and Garcia even won the Best Actress prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. Trying to make sense out of the specialty categories at the Oscars is quite futile - categories like Documentary Feature and Foreign Language are decided more selectively by the branches that are run by their own rules and end up representing a more pointed viewpoint as opposed to the rest of the categories which represent the vast faces that make up the entire Academy - and I haven't even seen a good deal of the Foreign film nominees, so I can't complain too loudly. But this is definitely a worthy film, filled with heart and passion. It believes in love, even if it knows that it is a foolhardy endeavor. It prefers the uncorked enthusiasm and occasional mistakes of someone like Gloria to the hardened cynicism that has come to encompass the entire world. It wants her to persevere in the face of heartbreak and loneliness, and it makes you want to too.

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