Gloria (Paulina Garcia) is a woman in her fifties who still feels young and vital. Divorced and lonely, Gloria spends time looking for love at Santiago’s dance clubs for single adults. When she meets Rodolfo, she is overcome with passion and gives her all, but the relationship doesn’t work out the way she hoped. Despite her difficulties, Gloria ultimately discovers a strength she didn’t know she had. She becomes more determined than ever to make her golden years the best years of her life, with or without a man at her side.
Chile’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is a surprisingly powerful and emotional story that focuses on the kind of woman who is all but invisible in most films today. While Gloria didn’t make the Academy’s final cut, Paulina Garcia has won raves around the world (including a Best Actress prize at the Berlin International Film Festival) for her tour-de-force performance. The actress appears in every frame of the film — there isn’t a single scene that isn’t all about how Gloria is feeling about herself and the world around her. I sat down with writer/director Sebastián Lelio in Los Angeles to discuss his poignant, beautifully realized film.
Sebastián Lelio: Paulina is a respected stage actress and also a playwright, but she hasn’t had much of a film career. This is one of the reasons why I made this film — to pay tribute to her amazing talent!
To get a film made with a female lead in this country is already something of a miracle, much less if that woman is “of a certain age” — with the possible exception of films starring Dame Judi Dench! Do you think that is less of an issue in your country?
Well, I think it’s different in Chile because we don’t really have a film industry like you have here. It wasn’t really difficult in those terms. I think because of our lack of experience, we’re more likely to explore different kinds of stories — we don’t have any proven formula! Still, I didn’t automatically get a lot of support. This is the type of project that just doesn’t sound that appealing when you first describe it. It’s definitely not a “high concept” film!
I’m embarrassed to say how little I know about Chile but I was intrigued when I heard you say how your country’s current politics and unfair social contract is reflected in the film. Can you explain that?
It was important for me to situate Gloria’s story in the specific setting of what my country is going through right now — the growth pains we are experiencing. Chile is a country that is doing relatively well, there is money, but we have an extremely unfair distribution of wealth. The few rich people control most of the money.
And yet Gloria seems pretty solidly middle class.
She is. Our middle class has been growing and I hope it will keep growing until the collective consciousness can begin to produce changes. In the film, you see Gloria’s story against the backdrop of students protesting. They’re fighting for free access to education among other things since the money is there for that. I was interested in creating a resonance between that collective, external and social struggle happening in Chile now with Gloria’s own struggle to be respected and seen. That’s what the young people are fighting for as well — they want to be seen!
That’s fascinating even though I’m not sure most American audiences will pick up on those nuances. But it’s easy to relate to Gloria’s personal struggles. Are there other aspects of the film that you worry Americans might not fully grasp?
I’m sure there are. When I see an American film, I know I miss many details. But the most important thing for me is that there’s a connection on an emotional level, the rest doesn’t matter as much. You have to first be taken by a film on that level and then the filmmaker can elaborate on whatever intellectual thesis he or she has.
Was the character of Gloria inspired by real women you know?
She was a combination. The story itself and all the details have happened in one way or another to different people I know — this film is sort of like a Frankenstein of different things that have taken place in Santiago that mean something to me. And even though this is a very Chilean movie, I was inspired by 1970s American cinema, especially Cassavettes’ films. This is a very Gena Rowlands-inspired film! For Paulina, too — we both adore Gena Rowlands and there are moments in the film that are specific homages to her performances such as the bar scene that evokes A Woman Under the Influence.
I heard an audible gasp in my audience when we first saw Gloria and Rodolfo having sex. It’s not that we’re not used to seeing nudity, we’re just not used to seeing it with actors that age! Did you have a lot of discussions about how far to go with that?
Yes, that was a super-deliberated decision! Most of us are far from the perfect physical icons you see in most movies. There was something very political in it for me. I felt I had a duty to show those scenes in a straightforward way because the film is really about the right to feel pleasure and to be alive. We were trying to say, “Look, there is real beauty here where beauty is not supposed to be!” These characters’ bodies have a right to exist, why do we not see more people like this in contemporary films? There is such an obsession with youth and a denial of death. Nobody seems to want to look at older bodies!
Or even the fact that older people are still interested in having sex.
Right! I think I was also sending myself a message: “Don’t worry! It will continue!” (Laughs.) But I think this kind of story really hits a nerve with a lot of people. In Chile, women often come back to see it again with their mothers or daughters. You often see three generations of the same family coming back to see Gloria. That was so nice to witness.