In Gloria, Chile’s submission for a best foreign language film Oscar nomination, the 50-something title character (Paulina García) spends much of her screen time looking a little looped. Or stoned. Or hungover. Though there are moments when she’s one of these or another, the fleeting nuances in Gloria’s expressions are likely similar to what you’d see if you stared at anyone for nearly every second of their waking lives. And for nearly two hours, director/co-writer Sebastian Lelio ensures that you stare at her, shot after shot.
This approach would have backfired quickly if a lesser actress were in the role, but García’s remarkably controlled yet fluid performance compensates for a few unsatisfying gaps and what could have become a dull slice-of-life. The film opens with Gloria alone at a dance club for a near-retirement crowd, a little hesitant but finally approaching an acquaintance and shakin’ what she’s got. (And with Lelio unafraid to show sex—even full-frontal—we know that what Gloria’s got ain’t bad.)
Another night she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), a more timid and anxious type who nonetheless has no problem going home with a stranger. The differences in their personalities may be natural, but their circumstances factor in, too: Gloria’s been divorced for more than a decade, whereas Rodolfo separated from his wife only a year prior and still supports his grown daughters, financially and emotionally, as if they were children. Nevertheless, the pair begins a romance, though their lifestyles make it a bumpy one.
Gloria is not about the affair, however—it’s about Gloria. About how she’s lonely but refuses to plant herself at home every night. How she’s open-minded enough to meet her ex’s wife and not flip out when her young daughter wants to move to boyfriend’s native Sweden, but tells Rodolfo to “grow a pair” when he feels so ignored and uncomfortable at her family gathering that he leaves without telling her. When her daughter asks, “Who is this guy, Ma?” Gloria silently puts on her shoes but gazes at her kids with such bizarre, ever-shifting looks that you can’t quite tell what she’s thinking—at least until he shows up at her workplace, and she suggests he get some stones.
Gloria is subject to a few head-scratching humiliations, such as getting drunk after Rodolfo abandons her another time and waking up on a beach the next day with nothing but her clothes. It seems increasingly doubtful that these are new experiences, but a too-frequent result of her putting herself out there. She’s not exactly an easy character to like, such as when she busts out laughing at Rodolfo’s pre-gastric bypass photo or drops his phone in his soup. Yet García makes her fascinating to watch, playing Gloria as someone who carefully takes in even pedestrian sights and seems to mull over how they might relate to her life. She’s flawed, resilient, reckless, and temperamental. In other words, Gloria is human.