Sebastián Lelio is another of those foreign — in this case Chilean — filmmakers whose work (for whatever reason) has failed to come to Asheville. That changes with his fourth theatrical feature, Gloria, which opened on Friday at the Fine Arts. The film, which Lelio co-wrote with his Christmas (2009) co-author Gonzalo Maza, is not the sort of thing one sees every day. Oh, I don’t mean that it’s awash in cinematic creativity. In fact, I can recall nothing remarkable about the way Gloria is made — except that it’s well-made and intelligent. But this is a film that operates on story and character more than anything. In that regard, the film is far from what we usually see.
Gloria is about a woman approaching 60 and her attempts at finding herself as well as some romantic validation. Gloria (Chilean TV actress Paulina Garcia) has been divorced for years. She lives alone in a comfortable apartment with an often loud, mentally disturbed man on the floor above her. She’s also frequently invaded by the man’s hairless sphynx cat, which she’s slightly repulsed by. She works at a boring office. Her children are grown and have little need for her. (Gloria’s efforts at soothing a grandchild suggest that mothering may never have been her strong suit.) Her ex-husband has long since remarried. In other words, Gloria is at a loose end, and her only visible admirer is a cat she doesn’t much like.
Gloria is not, however, a victim. She has in some respects crafted her own world — that of an observer behind a pair of terminally unstylish glasses, cutting loose only in the privacy of her own car, where she sings along with pop songs on the radio. The crux of the film concerns Gloria’s attempts to become a participant rather than an observer. This takes the form of her meeting a retired naval officer, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández, No), at a dance club. He is much more recently divorced than she is, and his two daughters and ex-wife are constantly in need of him. Rodolfo keeps Gloria separate from his own life, while constantly intruding on hers. Yet they seem compatible, willing to share some pretty intimate secrets and are more than willing to share other kinds of intimacy. Even when he screws up spectacularly, Gloria ultimately relents and gives the relationship another chance.
This is pretty much what the film is. It’s all Gloria’s story. There isn’t a scene — possibly not even a shot — that she isn’t in. We never see what anyone else is doing. We make no discoveries she can’t make. We do, however, have glimpses of things she may not be aware of — like the way she slowly accepts the presence of the hairless cat and the meaning behind her actions in the film’s final scene. All of this is presented in a very frank manner. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the sex between Gloria and Rodolfo. In fact, it doesn’t shy away from anything, which is what makes it refreshingly adult. But let’s be honest: Gloria is utterly dependent on the performance of Paulina Garcia, and she more than delivers. She not only lays her body bare but also her soul. Rated R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, drug use and language.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.