Monday, November 11, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "Gloria"

Director: Sebastian Lelio
Runtime: 110 minutes

Even behind a pair of massive glasses, it's hard to take your eyes off of actress Paulina Garcia's face. It's a beautifully expressive, ordinary, and affable visage, capable of communicating deeply felt emotions with the smallest gestures. And even though Garcia bares it all in the frank, bittersweet film Gloria, her face alone is more than enough to carry the whole movie. 

Despite the generally melancholy tone, it's easy to see why Chile submitted Sebastian Lelio's character study for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. The movie is almost entirely dependent on Garcia's central turn, so investment in the titular character's journey is paramount. While the layers are pulled back slowly, Garcia is radiant throughout Gloria's minor triumphs and failures. 

Outside of Gloria and Garcia, there's not much else, which is the source of the film's best and weakest moments. When we first meet Gloria, she's casually dancing at a bar, hoping to snag a man for the evening. Having been divorced for over a decade, she's surprised when her one night stand with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) starts to bloom into something more. 

As this second chance at romance takes off, Lelio deftly takes us through Gloria's other relationships, highlighting her general loneliness. Her children have lives of their own, and her ex-husband (with whom she remains cordial) has already remarried. The initial shots of Gloria dancing to techno music transform from simple fun into quiet longing for human connection. Rather than use these strained relationships for tortured melodrama, Lelio, like Gloria, sits back and lets them play out with gentle understatement. 

With such a limited plot, Gloria does start to sag a bit in the middle, even as Garcia's performance continues to charm. At nearly two hours, it could easily use a trim; some smart cuts would actually make the film more impactful. If anything, the first act reveals Gloria's loneliness too efficiently, which gives way to repetition before Gloria's relationship with Rodolfo becomes more dramatically engaging.

That said, it's hard to get too irked at the film when the central performance is so beautifully compelling. The slightly tragic nature of Gloria's life may be too consistently present (it practically lurks around every corner), but the eventual pay off is outstanding. Lelio may get a little lost during the journey, but he knocks the finale out of the park, delivering a conclusion that empowers its leading lady without sugar coating anything. With its sensitive characterization and a beautiful performance from Ms. Garcia, Gloria is able to work as both an honest character study and a rousing crowd-pleaser. 

Grade: B

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