“All things transform, right?” So asks Gloria (Paulina Garcia) to her partner, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández) one night in bed. It’s a question well suited to Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio’s 2013 film, Gloria, but it’s also one that reoccurs in his filmography.
His two most recent films, A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience — the former a recent Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film and the latter a Toronto Film Festival hit set for a wide release in April — both explore transformation, whether it be the process of love, loss, grief, and healing, or the experience of returning to a previous life to discover what and who has changed.
In his previous film, Gloria is herself in the constant process of transforming and growing and changing. She’s a 58-year-old divorcée, but her story is more akin to a coming of age tale than it is to most other films featuring a woman of a certain age.
When we meet Gloria, she’s at a bar by herself and though she spends the night dancing and flirting, she ends up returning to her apartment alone. Gloria has been divorced for twelve years, her ex is remarried, and her two adult children have lives of their own. She’s not lonely, per se. She has friends who care for her and she does have the occasional fling. But she wants someone to really commit to. Enter Rodolfo, a man seven years her senior who was divorced in the last year. She’s bold and he’s introverted, but they hit it off and begin dating.
The problem is, Rodolfo forms relationships based on dependency. His adult children and ex-wife are all unemployed and dependent on him financially. He basically admits he’s a doormat, but he makes no attempt to change this. He interrupts his time with Gloria to take phone calls from them asking for money and he leaves her to return to them at the drop of a hat. But he also expects constant devotion from her. When he’s invited to join her at her son’s birthday dinner, he abandons the party out of frustration when Gloria is preoccupied with family photos and can’t give Rodolfo 100% of her attention.
For a while, though, Gloria is willing to overlook the issues. She desires a companion and Rodolfo fulfills this. They have some good times; he takes her bungee jumping and paintballing, not to mention the two have an active sex life that is rarely if ever seen in movies about characters over the age of 50.
But then the cracks begin to appear. One afternoon Rodolfo reads her a poem from Claudio Bertoni. It’s a sweet moment, until another phone call from his daughter interrupts it. And though Gloria is touched, she has a much more emotional reaction later to hearing her daughter read an email from her boyfriend where he describes his love for her in his own words, words that might not be polished the way Rodolfo’s poems are, but that are genuine and come from the heart.
While Gloria‘s themes of dependency and commitment speak to universal experiences of dating, there was also a specific choice to have this character as a protagonist. There are aspects to Gloria and Rodolfo’s relationship unique to their ages, from the un-glamourized depictions of their bodies in sex scenes, to Rodolfo’s struggle with separating himself from an ex-wife he was with for decades.
Save for the occasional Nancy Meyers movie, it’s rare to find a romance starring a woman over the age of 50 where her desires are never treated like a punch line. Much like A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience, which are about a transgender woman and an Orthodox Jewish queer woman, respectively, Gloria puts at its center a character who is often placed in the margins of the stories Hollywood deems worthy of telling. Personal growth, love, loss, and desire may be universally relatable themes, but Lelio examines them through specific lenses rarely represented on screen. With his next movie being an English-language adaptation of Gloria starring Julianne Moore, he is on track to bring these stories and characters to mainstream Hollywood.
Lelio has built a considerable portion of his filmography around telling relatable stories with characters underrepresented in film, but at the core of Gloria is also the story of one individual woman. Featuring a stunning performance from Paulina Garcia, Gloria presents its protagonist honestly and empathetically. Between Gloria’s occasional moment of childish humor — when she gets fed up with Rodolfo’s constantly ringing phone she dunks it into a bowl of soup — and her penchant for singing along to pop songs in her car, she can strike a comparison to the teenage protagonists of a number of coming of age films. But Gloria is also a woman who has experienced life. She’s been through a divorce and it’s taken roughly a decade for her to be in the same room as her ex-husband, but she’s putting the work in to do so for the sake of her family. She’s also wise and caring. She makes time to help her son with his newborn baby and she goes to yoga classes just to bond with her daughter.
Eventually, Gloria’s journey leads to her realizing the necessity of change and that this can only happen along with personal freedom, whether it is her own or someone else’s. Although initially resistant, she accepts her daughter’s wish to move to Sweden to be with her boyfriend. She also reaches the end of her rope with Rodolfo after being abandoned, once again, so he can return to his ex-wife. Gloria has her sweet bit of revenge, which is a delight to watch, and that severs ties with Rodolfo.
The film bookends with another scene of Gloria dancing, this time to the film’s eponymous song, “Gloria” by Umberto Tozzi. After being asked to dance by another guest at a wedding she’s attending and turning him down, Gloria makes her own way onto the dance floor. There could be a tinge of sadness to this, the possibility she may be resigning herself to being single. But she’s still growing and learning, she has time to seek out other companions in the future, and she will go forward assured that no relationship can be successful when a partner expects her to sacrifice her independence.
For now, it’s all about her. This is her song and her moment and she embraces this jubilantly as she dances by herself, alone but not lonely. She has the most important thing, the thing no one can ever take from her: her fantastic, glorious self.