Film Review: ‘Gloria’ by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins

What is it about the name ‘Gloria’ that inspires songs and films written about tough minded, independent woman making their own way in an imperfect world? One can’t help but think of Laura Brannigan’s 80’s hit from the Flashdance soundtrack as it reverberates memories of a nostalgic past. And, when I hear of a film titled Gloria, my mind immediately thinks of striking film by one of my favorite filmmakers John Cassavetes, starring his wife – the incomparable Gena Rowlands. Gena gives a soaring, Academy Award-nominated performance in the 1980 Gloria film; a decade later in 1999 Sharon Stone starred in the less than stellar remake.

 Paulina Garcia in 'Gloria.' Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Paulina Garcia in ‘Gloria.’ Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

In Chilean writer/director Sebastian Lelio’s latest understated new film, Gloria, Paulina Garcia in the title role is captivating, hauntingly authentic, and damn near-perfect. Her charisma, vulnerable intensity, and the variety of her facial gestures and expressive body language are always believable. This is a woman you will recognize. Determined to defy old age and loneliness, what make this romantic drama comedy unique is Lelio’s bold focus on a segment of society that is underserved in film today – the coming of age complexities and sexuality of a middle age woman as she approaches 60.

Lelio and regular collaborator, writer Gonzalo Maza’s accurate and intimate character study of mature love will surprisingly captivate the attention of viewers so often seduced by Hollywood’s love affair of the young, beautiful, or famous. The risk of acknowledging the intricacies and confusion of ageing romance and sexual relationships is a fascinating education. Some things in life never change (no matter your age, even when it comes to matters of the heart). But we learn with experience, the ups, downs, and recovery are handled a little better.

Lelio’s compelling cinema demonstrates that when you write a strongly developed story with thoughtfully realized characters it doesn’t matter who or what age your protagonists are. It’s the strength of story – the writing – that matters.

The unveiling of the often not seen middle age quest for love, the harsh realities, and the up close truths of sex and sexuality is revealing and heartbreaking. Garcia’s effervescent portrayal in Gloria is impeccable and she’s in nearly every frame of every shot. Her tour de force performance is one I still haven’t shook, and it’s Paulina Garcia’s searing reach as an actor that makes this foreign drama one of the best of 2013.

Gloria was Chile’s selection for the 86th Academy Awards. Despite the three prizes at the Berlin Film Festival (including Paulina Garcia’s Silver Bear Best Actress Award, and the Ecumenical Jury  Prize), and an Independent Spirit Award nomination in the foreign-language category, Gloria didn’t make this year’s Academy Award’s final top five for Best Foreign films.

Gloria is an adventurous, vivacious, divorced woman of twelve years who is a romantic at heart, and looking for one last shot at love. Set in Santiago, in a series of smartly paced scenes, the viewer very quickly is invested in the internal angst and the various emotional pitfalls Gloria is up against. Gloria a real woman of many dimensions, with a full range of emotions, and there is no sugar-coating her reality in this film.

Calls to her two adult children go to voicemail. Her life at the moment is a disconnect. As a woman of a “certain age,” Gloria is not only lonely, she is alone, but she stays active busying herself by taking classes and trying new things. She has drive and she doesn’t give up easily. Night after night Gloria traverses a social dance club, where her attractive but ordinary looks go unnoticed at the bar, so she makes her way to the dance floor. Her keen observations, masked behind her distracting, oversized spectacles (reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie), telegraph a sharp wit and resolute interior. She knows who she is, but there is less certainty in whom she is to become. Undeterred, Gloria is a woman determined to participate and make her own way in a universe that has seemingly begun to view her as invisible.

This film about perception is an equally moving, powerful statement about survival.

Gloria has a chance meeting with an attractive older man, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), a recent divorcee. Their eyes lock. Looking for the opportunity for a permanent relationship, filling the void and fragile happiness in both their lives, a whirlwind relationship ensues.

Rodolfo is a charming former naval officer and the owner of “Vertigo Park,” a theme park of fun and games. Finally, it appears Gloria has met a match for her adventurous spirit. But Rodolfo is a conflicted man. He is encumbered and towered by the enabling need of his two adult daughters, and ex-wife who hasn’t let go.

Several instances of full-frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes are shot matter-of-factly and presented in a nonjudgmental way, and the conversation is blunt. Seeing a film about adults for adults who express themselves realistically without being over-stylized or romanticized with body doubles and gymnastic technique is completely refreshing.

Gloria and Rodolfo’s rollercoaster ride relationship is the central conflict to Sebastian Lelio’s insightful film, and the baggage of his past might derail the passion they share and any prospect of a fortuitous future.

The deft direction of transitionless, smoothly edited passages of emotional wasteland and  psychological segue are all encompassing, and the warmth of Benjamín Echazarreta’s cinematography is inviting and beautiful.

 Paulina Garcia in 'Gloria.' Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Sergio Hernandez (Rodolfo) and Paulina Garcia (Gloria) in ‘Gloria.’ Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Regardless of your age or gender, we all become a part of Gloria’s world. There is depth, sensitivity, and an empathetic connection with Gloria that inspires hope. This well paced, touching drama never falters or breathes a false note.

Regardless of one’s age, viewers observe we all are still capable of finding love.

As Gloria looks at herself admiringly in the mirror, embracing her golden years (with Umberto Tozzi’s Spanish version of “Gloria” vibing in the background), she recognizes – perhaps for the first time – that a fire burns deep within and that she possesses a light that shines brighter than ever.

Gloria’s bravery, free spirit, and magnetic smile refuse to go quietly.

Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Rated R.

Here are the showtimes for DC area theaters.

Gloria website

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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