BERLIN – We’re roughly at the midway point of the Berlin Film Festival, and should probably tell you how this year’s Competition lineup is shaping up. The truth, however, is that I haven’t seen enough of it to say, as my schedule for the last couple of days has kept me in the smaller, often more interesting, sections of the vast Berlin programme, meaning I’ve only seen about five of the films in the running for the Golden Bear.
The festival grapevine, however, suggests I haven’t missed that much. Consensus has it that the Competition, with the exception of Ulrich Seidl’s excellent “Paradise: Hope,” got off to a bit of a slow start, and was only kicked into touch yesterday by Chilean entry “Gloria” — which I resolved to see at this morning’s public screening after hearing glowing reports from multiple trusted colleagues. Good news travels fast in Berlin: I arrived at the city’s vast Friedrichpalast theater to find it improbably crowded for a freezing Monday morning.
“I hope this is the one,” the young German student seated next to me said brightly, having been disappointed after shelling out for the premieres of tepidly reviewed Nina Hoss Euro-western “Gold,” and widely despised convent melodrama “The Nun” — which I didn’t see and with which I now have no desire to catch up, particularly after being warned by another friend that it contains the worst performance of the great Isabelle Huppert’s career. I smiled sympathetically: critics may routinely whine about the standard of festival films, but at least we don’t have to pay for them.
I would gladly, however, pay the price of admission for another Berlinale film is good as “Gloria,” a warm, wise, wickedly funny study of middle-aged female desires that seems a modest achievement only until you try to remember the last mainstream film you saw that treated comparable characters with half as much care. Next to Sebastian Lelio’s broadly accessible but uncompromising charmer, even a superior Hollywood relationship drama like “Hope Springs” looks ersatz: beginning with the unfazed full-frontal shots of lead actress Paulina Garcia’s imperfect fiftysomething body, Lelio (who won much festival acclaim for his 2005 film “The Sacred Family,” though I admit I’m new to his work) treats women of a certain age with respect and generosity, but also enough matter-of-fact humor to dodge condescension.
Introducing its eponymous protagonist (Garcia, who may as well take the festival’s Best Actress award right now) at a slightly shabby singles night for professionals of a certain age, “Gloria” makes no bones about the fact that being a working divorcee pushing sixty sucks more than the self-help books are generally willing to admit. But as piped 1970s Eurodisco wafts over the soundtrack, it’s immediately clear that Gloria, her face dominated by Dorothy Michaels glasses, is determined to make the best of her lot. All too refreshingly for an older female character, she’s in full possession of her sexuality as she hits the dance floor and swiftly snares sweet, soft-bellied schmo Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez); they go home and have the kind of satisfying, straightforward sex that over-40s don’t ever seem to have in the movies.
Though Gloria’s ensuing on-off relationship with the frustratingly reticent Rodolfo takes up the bulk of the narrative, this remains largely a one-woman show, as a life is built from loosely sequenced but finely shaped scenes: we learn much about the character from her loving but awkward interactions with her two grown children, whom she tries to avoid admitting need her a lot less than she needs them, from her darting, slope-shouldered movements at her drab office job, from the contentment on her face as she sings along to gloopy radio ballads while alone in the car. It’s clear that years of dedication to her failed marriage has left her without many true friends; in the film’s tangiest, altogether most moving stretch, as a planned dirty weekend at the coast goes hurtfully awry, it’s left to Gloria’s hired cleaner to pick up the pieces.
Never intellectualizing or sanctifying Gloria’s unhappiness when it could be laughing — or grimacing — with her at the occasionally absurd turns her life has taken, Lelio openly loves his character, and isn’t afraid to grant her moments of triumph amid the ruins. It spoils nothing to say “Gloria” ends with her in an ecstatic dance with herself to the 1980s Umberto Tozzi hit of the same title, since this is a film that knows most lives run in circles rather than narrative arcs: better days lie ahead for Gloria, but so do worse ones.
Though it’s written and produced by men (Pablo Larrain, the leading Chilean auteur behind current Oscar nominee “No,” is among those on board), it doesn’t feel a stretch to call “Gloria” a feminist film, one with a profound understanding of how women are seen even by the most generous societies, and how they in turn respond to that perception.
The script certainly couldn’t give more of itself to its leading lady, and Chilean TV star Garcia accepts with a wondrous star turn that makes plain Gloria’s inner vitality, but doesn’t stint on the petty insecurities holding her back in other respects. Meryl Streep would grab a US remake with both hands, and would probably be wonderful, but it’s hard to imagine the surrounding film supporting her with quite such grace and maturity. To answer my seatmate’s question, “Gloria” may or may not be “the one” at Berlin, but watch it fly anyway.