DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "Gloria" is a new film from Chile that centers on a late-middle-aged divorced woman whose life is full of uncertainties. She's played by Paulina Garcia, who won the top acting prize - the Silver Bear - at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, where the movie was a surprise hit. It opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, and wider next month. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The Chilean drama "Gloria" is a lovely surprise. Paulina Garcia plays Gloria, 58 years old, middle class, 10 years divorced. We first see her sitting at the bar a at single's event for older people. She wears big, round glasses like the specs worn by Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels in "Tootise." Her aloneness comes through vividly, yet she waits with a kind of equanimity.
The music is vintage disco and it seems to keep her buoyant - and the movie buoyant too. It is a lonely life. Her son is emotionally distant, her daughter who teaches yoga is absorbed in a new relationship with a roving Swede. The streets of Santiago are full of young demonstrators. Her intellectual friends argue nervously about the country's future.
In the flat above her, an unseen man rants into the night, his grasp of reality tenuous. His cat has wandered into Gloria's apartment - a skeletal, hairless beast that she feeds. Most unsettling. But when Gloria drives through the city, she sings along to pop songs full of hope.
Paulina Garcia is well known in Chile as a TV actress, a playwright, and a director. She's new to me but now I'll go see her in anything. What makes her performance so wonderful is how she portrays a state of flux. She is always game, always slightly wary. Never quite sure of her place in the world. The more you get to know her the more fascinating she becomes.
And we don't meet women like Gloria enough in movies. An older man named Rodolfo, played by Sergio Hernandez, fastens on her. He's a retired navy man who owns a sort of fun center - paintball games and the like. His passion is hard for Gloria to resist. But there are worrying signs. There's something pleading in his demeanor. And he's besieged by calls from his ex-wife and overly dependent grown daughters.
When her daughter asks who is this guy, Mom, the uncertainty on her face is haunting. Damned if she knows. The writer-director Sebastian Lelio wrote "Gloria" for Garcia. In an interview, he said its emotional heart is the bassa nova song "Waters of March," best known in English in a gorgeous rendition by the late Susannah McCorkle, here sung by Gloria and her friends.
The movie, says Lelio, is a cinematic bassa nova - bittersweet, full of difficult themes, but also the poetry of daily life manifest even in silly pop song lyrics. The movie doesn't lie about its heroine's dwindling options. Her romantic life is tenuous; her children are gone. Her eyesight is going. It's rife with disappointments and humiliations, among them a sequence that's delirious and excruciating in which Gloria gets drunk at a casino.
But the film has a wild card up its sleeve - the old disco hit "Gloria" which arrives when we need it most. In the Laura Brannigan English cover, it's about a woman nobody wants. In the original, written by Umberto Tozzi, it's positively throbbing with possibilities. The movie is a seesaw between happy and horrible but it still leaves you wanting to dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLORIA")
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr on nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.