Most of us know Laura Branigan's 1982 hit version of "Gloria," a perversely upbeat anthem for a woman with serious emotional issues. But the earworm tune originated in 1979 with Umberto Tozzi's "Gloria," a love song with lyrics that paid unironic tribute to its subject.
Tozzi's is the version of "Gloria" heard in this Chilean drama from cowriter-director Sebastián Lelio, whose 58-year-old heroine is, naturally, named Gloria (Paulina García). Yet the range of reactions the film provokes in viewers is as vast as the distance between the song's two popular incarnations. Some critics have come away asserting that, like Branigan, Lelio puts his main character under a merciless microscope. Others see a celebration of Gloria's spirit and resilience — a love song of a movie.
Perhaps these reactions to Gloria say less about the film than about the viewer, and specifically the viewer's feelings about frank depictions of older people having sex on screen. Lelio's camera is clear about its allegiance: It's always close to Gloria, focusing where she focuses, ensuring that we see little more of her world than she does. The film is a showcase for García's rich and varied performance. When it comes to finding meaning in Gloria's story, though, Lelio leaves that up to us.
We first meet Gloria at a dance club for the older crowd, scoping out men. She's single with two grown kids, an ex, a grandkid, a job and a crazy neighbor upstairs. When a hairless cat sneaks into her apartment, she evicts it self-righteously, as if suspecting the universe of trying to turn her into a cat lady.
To avert that outcome, Gloria embarks on a romance with soft-spoken divorcé Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández). Like Gloria, he's eager to be part of his grown children's lives. But while her kids have declared their independence, Rodolfo's demand a degree of attention and loyalty that compromises the relationship.
It's a small, realistic conflict that Gloria handles with admirable straightforwardness. (So, in fact, does Gloria the character.) Yet, as ordinary scene follows ordinary scene, viewers may find themselves frustrated with all this down-to-earthness. There's nothing grand, tragic or special about Gloria's goals: She wants human connection. She enjoys the sappy illusions of love songs, but she's reasonably skilled at the tools of real relationships: seduction, negotiation and compromise.
Only the voice of Gloria's upstairs neighbor, ranting to no one about his existential crises, hints at the true stakes of her conflict. He appears to have succumbed to the fate of Branigan's Gloria, a manic loneliness full of "voices in your head."
Gloria's shifting reactions to the neighbor — who remains invisible until the film's final scenes — mirror ours to her. Everything she dreads for her future, she projects onto the stranger. Yet, when he appears at last, he's no longer so frightening. Nor, perhaps, is the prospect of growing old without a partner, which Gloria confronts each time she questions her relationship with Rodolfo.
The audience's own presumed fear of that fate is written into the film's subtext; it's certainly one reason we don't see more movies about single women of Gloria's age. (When we do, they're generally frothy, fantasyland rom coms where everybody is rich.) By presenting Gloria without judgment, painting her as neither a triumphant standard bearer for sex at 60 nor a deluded youth chaser, Lelio creates a film that sneaks up on viewers much more artfully than the strident beat of "Gloria." By the end, oddly enough, it's almost as hard to get out of your head.