Gloria sings along to the oldies on the car radio. Everybody does — especially in movies — but for Gloria, a divorced lady nearing 60, singing along seems like an especially cherished private celebration.
The rest of her life is less well-ordered than those well-crafted pop songs: Her grown kids are kind but aloof, her new romantic relationship is mystifying and there’s this hairless cat that keeps showing up in her apartment.
“Gloria,” Chile’s official submission to the Academy Awards (it didn’t get nominated), is the film that comes out of this very specific character, and it succeeds because of its well-chosen vignettes and a remarkable lead performance. Paulina Garcia, a veteran of Chilean television, plays the title role and builds a small masterpiece out of Gloria’s behavioral tics.
Garcia understands this woman from the heels up: the guarded smile at social dances, conveying her interest in meeting someone but also her wariness at getting duped; the habit of idly cleaning up crumbs from the table of her son’s home; the forced casualness of ordering a drink at a bar when she suspects she might have been abandoned there by her date.
Gloria has a couple of purely sexual encounters during the film (the movie is admirably nonchalant about suggesting that people over 50 might enjoy a fling or two, and unembarrassed about depicting such flings), but her main romantic interest is a recently divorced ex-Navy retiree, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez). He’s boyishly delighted by Gloria’s sense of fun, but his adherence to a certain machismo code has him hopelessly at the beck and call of his ex-wife and two adult daughters.
Formerly tubby, Rodolfo has had gastric bypass surgery and is just beginning to try out his life as a chick magnet. Maybe he misses his protective layer, or he still lacks willpower; whatever it is, he keeps disappointing Gloria.
Director Sebastian Lelio fills “Gloria” with colorful detail, to the point of occasional pushiness. We didn’t need to see Gloria encounter a peacock at a garden party to infer that she herself might be ready to bloom, for instance.
But he and Garcia have created a character so richly imperfect and fully inhabited that her trajectory remains engaging despite the occasional overstatement. By the end, she has earned her own song — for ’80s pop-music fans, the choice is obvious but still exhilarating — and this time everybody else gets to sing along, too.
“Gloria” (three stars)
Paulina Garcia gives a splendid performance as a divorcee, nearly 60, who isn’t ready to stop living life just yet. The film is so detailed in its approach that we completely believe in Gloria’s world, even when she meets a man who isn’t quite ready to cut loose. In Spanish, with English subtitles.
Rated: R for nudity, language.
Showing: Meridian, Sundance.