The story line of “Gloria,” a drama from Chile directed by Sebastián Lelio that opens Friday, is straightforward enough: The title character, divorced and lonely, with self-absorbed adult children, yearns for a companion and frequents singles events looking for one. Gingerly, she begins a romance with Rodolfo, a retired Navy officer who turns out to be a jerk, and so she is forced to decide whether she is better off alone.
With her “Tootsie”-style glasses (Mr. Lelio is a big fan of American films in general and Dustin Hoffman in particular), Gloria is meant to be a sympathetic figure, a kind of middle-aged Everywoman. She is played by the 53-year-old Chilean actress Paulina García, who is also a playwright and director and may not have fully realized the burden that Mr. Lelio had placed on her shoulders.
“ ‘Gloria’ was a gamble,” Mr. Lelio, 39, said in an interview with Larry Rohter during the New York Film Festival last fall. “If the character fails, the film sinks with her, and if she triumphs, the film triumphs as well. The character was at the center of everything, but I didn’t want Paulina to know that, to have to carry that weight.”
At the Berlin Film Festival last year, Ms. García won the best actress prize and “Gloria” the jury prize. Writing about the picture at the New York Film Festival, A. O. Scott called it “breathtakingly honest.” Amid much buzz, Chile offered “Gloria” as its submission for the foreign-language Oscar, but the film did not reach the shortlist. Speaking in Spanish during the fall interview, Mr. Lelio reflected on finding the right tone for “Gloria” and subtexts that may (or may not) be there. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q. I think there’s a Spanish-language proverb that pretty neatly sums up your film: “Better to be alone than in unpleasant company.”
A. [Laughs.] That’s a possible interpretation, among many. It’s hard for me to reduce a film that can have so many meanings to one thing. But that is one of them.
You’re a man, and still in your 30s. What motivated you to make a film about a divorced woman old enough to be your mother?
I’d wanted to work with Paulina for a long time. It was just a matter of finding the right setting, so when the initial idea emerged, to make a movie about a Chilean woman in her late 50s, who sings in her car, when that first intuition of a script emerged, so did Paulina. It was always an homage, a love letter, to Paulina.
Your mention of her singing along to the radio as she drives underlines how central music is to this film. A lot of that music is really tacky pop. What were you trying to say about her with that?
The use of music in “Gloria” is not cynical. Who decides that singing a Rolling Stones song has more value as a human experience than singing a song by Paloma San Basilio [a Spanish performer known for treacly romantic ballads]? They are equally valuable. The film is not saying this is tacky. It’s saying we human beings feel emotion through music. That what you or I consider tacky, which is not a word I would use, depends on your cultural formation and context.
Midway through the film, Gloria and some friends are singing the bossa nova classic “The Waters of March,” which begins with a verse about being “a little bit alone” and ends with one about “the promise of life in your heart.” Does that signal the film’s arc?
This project had “The Waters of March” as its emotional heart. I would even go so far as to say that bossa nova itself was like an aesthetic beacon for the film, which in a way tries to be a kind of cinematographic bossa nova. It’s constructed to deal with the bittersweet of life, with a narrative that is sensual, that plunges into difficult themes, but does so in a way that is soft and gentle. And beyond that, it’s about the poetry of daily life, simple things, like those mentioned in the lyrics.
Let me ask about some other things you planted in the script. Gloria’s romantic interest is a retired navy officer, which to any Chilean who lived through the Pinochet dictatorship carries a particularly strong and unpleasant set of connotations.
I think we’re in a more complicated moment than that in Chile, that people understand that not all naval officers were torturers. There are naval officers who are human beings, who lived through a complicated moment. In other words, I believe we’re at a level of maturity in which we can step away from reductionisms.
But the question of his past just hangs there.
Look, that’s fantastic. He says that one word, “navy,” and everyone in the whole world goes crazy trying to analyze it. That’s an indication of the power that a cinematic sign can have. Just one word, air between lips. Nevertheless, in Europe, in the United States, all over, it’s an obsession. Why this insistence?
Because everyone knows about the 1973 coup, which began with the navy. And because you could have given him any profession in the world, architect, doctor, whatever, but chose to make him a naval officer.
I know, but when I see “The Devil Wears Prada,” I also know that the characters could have had this or that political background.
But there’s isn’t a political subtext in that film the same way there is in yours.
I see that film as completely political. Fashion is totally political, the icon of a political system. This is interesting, because there are certain demands made of Chilean films, with great insistence. And we’re responding to that in a way that is kind of mischievous.
There’s also an interesting scene in which Gloria is on the street as students march to demand more funds for education. She’s going in one direction, the protesters in the other. I hope you’re not going to try to convince me that’s also a coincidence.
The film says what it says. You can’t ask questions beyond that. It would be like betraying the mystery of the film. If I tell you what Gloria thinks, it would be a lack of respect to Gloria.
De THE NEW YORK TIMES, 14/01/2014
Fotografía: Paulina García