Chile (2013) Dir. Sebastián Lelio

Of the few films I have seen from Chile, there has been a heavy political theme running through them, quite understandable since the country was under a military dictatorship for many years, with artists now free to tell their stories and offer opinions free from censure. Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria completely bucks this trend – unless the political undertones are buried in metaphor and as such, offers us a different perspective of modern Chilean society.

The title character (Paulina García) is a 58 year-old divorcee with two adult children – Pedro (Diego Fontecilla) and Ana (Fabiola Zamora) – but she doesn’t dwell on this, hitting the singles bar scene with regularity and often getting the odd night of fun out of it.

It isn’t until Gloria meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández) also a divorcee but a few years her senior that the seeds of a possible relationship are sown. However both are carrying the baggage of family ties which provide regular interference in their happiness, the burden of which doesn’t bode well for a smooth romantic journey.

Chances are the above summary sounds like a regular romantic melodrama that you see tucked away in the afternoon TV schedules in between one of the many Come Dine With Me repeats and Countdown. Fret not as this is far from it, subverting what is a straightforward premise by excising the schmaltz and twee conventions for something earthier and more realistic.

Our leading lady may be in the queue for her senior citizen bus pass but there is life in the old girl yet; she is quite youthful looking for her age, vibrant, feisty and young at heart, willing to take that leap of faith for some fun. Rodolfo isn’t quite so exhuberant as Gloria but as the owner of an amusement park called Vertigo Park he does know how to have fun.

Days out paint-balling and bungee jumping are followed by a rumble between the sheets as the couple grow closer but Rodolfo’s insistence on keeping their relationship a secret from his two adult daughters upsets Gloria.

In complete contrast Gloria takes Rodolfo to Pedro’s birthday dinner where her ex-husband Gabriel (Alejandro Goic) is there with his new wife, Flavia (Liliana García). In what is no surprise Gabriel has got himself a slightly younger model as opposed to Gloria and her older lover which makes for an interesting dynamic in comparing how both have moved on with their lives.

One can read so much into this – is Gloria not attractive enough for a younger man or is Gabriel a real catch for Flavia? Why are they married yet Gloria is still single? A deliberate life choice or bad luck on her part?

This family get together descends into an awkward experience especially for Rodolfo and doesn’t encourage him to come clean to his own daughters, infuriating Gloria. This clash of philosophy plays a large part in Lelio’s twist on this conventional storyline.

Rather than the objections of the children being the roadblock it is the parent’s own hang up which threatens to jeopardise the relationship, an area that is seldom explored in cinema (or least mainstream films).

Lelio also seems intent to dispel the myth – for wanting a better term – that second relationships are easier and the more fruitful for older couples, presenting us with a bittersweet, if often rather gloomy alternative.

Since the story is about flying the flag for the older lovers it stands to reason that twilight romances are likely to be doomed to failure as much as first loves.  The circumstance may differ but affairs of the heart are brittle experiences, a pain that doesn’t discriminate because of age.

What this approach brings with it is a unique philosophy beholden to the fact that our lovers are golden oldies. At this point it needs to be explained that there is some nudity and a couple of sex scenes; they are not especially graphic nor do they shy away from exposing the truth but younger audiences may find the idea of senior citizen sex a little unappealing (although to her credit Paulina García is in good shape for her age).

As repellent as this may sound for some, these scenes add so much to the honesty and frankness of the film, which are arguably its key strengths.

Delivering a blistering performance as the eponymous character, Paulina García is the centrifugal force of this film, in what we can safely define as a rewarding role for both actress and the audience.

Gloria is a strong woman who knows her own mind and doesn’t fall to pieces because she is single or when things get rocky between her and Rodolfo. There is no teary melodrama, no desperation, no leaning on others, Gloria just gets on with her life and García dives into this role with evident relish.

Despite a passing resemblance to Dustin Hoffman’s female alter-ego Tootsie (due to her big glasses) García portrays Gloria with such conviction that one believes in her every move, hangs on her every word and roots for her every action.

Possibly her defining moment comes at the end when a Spanish language cover of the Laura Brannigan 80’s classic bearing her name plays at a party and Gloria refuses a dance from a man but hits the floor with a solo routine of liberation and self empowerment.

The direction and mise-en-scene of the film is very intimate and we often feel Leilo is making a documentary from his choice of shots and angles. The script and delivery from the capable cast is very naturalistic, which saves the moments of conflict from becoming overblown dramas, instead delivering measured and relatable flashes of human insecurity and foible.

Gloria is a film which owes much of its success to the powerhouse central performance of Paulina García, not that the refreshing “oldies” take on the romantic drama isn’t a fascinating enough hook in its own right, benefiting from being outside the purview of Chilean political cinema.