Jan. 29 2014 03:10 PM

New Chilean film by director Sebastián Lelio spotlights an amazing performance by Paulina García

Paulina Garcia makes subtlety an art form.

Sebastián Lelio's Gloria begins and ends on the dance floor. However, the sly tonal differences between the two sequences are indicative of the film's deceptive power as an evolving character study, one deeply interested in the way emotional patterns and relationships shift over time. If there's a central theme in Lelio's lovely drama about a middle-aged woman dealing with the realities of post-divorce life, it's that decision-making is a very personal process, something often spoiled by too many spoken words.

The opening shot finds divorcée Gloria (Paulina García) sipping on a drink at the bar in a crowded club. The camera closes in from across the room, watching her watch everyone else. It's an evocative moment that almost feels like it could belong in a sexy thriller. Finally, Gloria moves into the crowd and begins to dance, alone at first and then with an adoring elderly man. They get drunk and caress passionately like horny teenagers.

Age means very little when it comes to passion in Gloria. There are beautifully frank sex scenes and tender confessionals between older characters that most filmmakers would simply avoid. But age also has very little to do with wisdom, as we find out during Gloria's topsy-turvy tryst with a theme-park owner named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández). He's a weak-willed man still inexplicably linked to his needy family even a year after splitting up with his wife. Gloria recognizes the red flag, but still moves forward, thinking Rodolfo might be her second chance at love.

Gloria has more experience with divorced life, having been split from her husband for nearly a decade. She lives alone in an apartment situated beneath a particularly angry man who often screams violently at night. A hairless cat wanders in through her window each day, retreating from the negativity and noise that resonates through the thin walls. Her grown children are both dealing with transitional moments in their relationships (single parenting, pregnancy, marriage). Uncertainty seems to drift through the air.

These are life's little complications that influence Gloria during her quiet scenes alone in bed, driving to work or walking home drunk. They obviously haunt her as a mother and a woman, but what's amazing is that the film doesn't define her by these potentially convoluted plot points. She is more than an archetype of loneliness.

García's performance is so subtle that it takes a long time for the viewer to pick up on all the nuances. Gloria's body slightly tilts while intoxicated and her eyes well with sadness and embarrassment every time Rodolfo acts selfishly. There's a vulnerable openness to her walk and a sense of pride in her posture while sitting. A true method turn, García disappears into the rhythms and expressions of a woman facing a complex crossroads.

It's hard to separate the superb acting from Lelio's consistently inspired direction. Each scene flows into the next and has its own cadence, depending on the emotional intensity. Gloria—which opens Friday, Jan. 31, at Hillcrest Cinemas—lives on the border between a hothouse melodrama and art film, inhabiting this space with the same kind of unlocked and flawed confidence of its lead character. This has everything to do with Lelio's attention to character detail.

That's what makes the final dance sequence so incredibly moving and personal. After yet another catastrophic attempt at romance, Gloria attends the wedding party of a friend's daughter despite feeling weighed down by disappointment and anxiety. For most of the night, she sits alone, pondering her next move.

Then, in an instant, Umberto Tozzi's rousing "Gloria" fills the space, prompting a magnificent solo dance that speaks to the character's resolve and lust for life. You can feel her vitality with every crazed move.

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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See all events on Thursday, Apr 28