Film: The Jolly Divorcée

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Are you always this happy?” the transfixed gent of a certain age asks the vivacious, radiant fifty-something gal with the bulky turtle shell glasses as she steps away from the dance floor.

Gloria Cumplido coyly replies she has her ups and downs, just like everyone else, but come on, who is she kidding? The central figure in the captivating Chilean import Gloria hasn’t exactly been dealt the best hand in life. Divorced for over a decade in what director/co-screenwriter Sebastián Lelio strongly suggests was a rocky marriage, she takes on her daily routine with an infectious smile and a best-foot-forward optimism that’s nothing short of empowering. Gloria, played with nuanced joie de vivre by Paulina García, is the kind of person who sings along to old-school baladas during her morning commute. Sure, it takes a Herculean effort for her to keep in touch with her two grown children, a son who plays the violin, and a daughter who’s aces as a yoga instructor. (Her son won’t even look up from his smartphone to talk to her when she pays him a visit.) But she’s not going to let such dismissive behavior dampen her spirits.

So what if that stifling loneliness that comes from being out of a long-term relationship for so long has created a void in her life? Off she goes to join the rest of her unattached peers, dancing the night away at a Santiago nightclub, often by herself. Which brings us back to Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), who can’t take his eyes off this radiant go-getter. OK, so he’s a little over the hill, but she does welcome the attention and lets lets herself be wooed, almost but not quite like a homecoming queen, albeit one going into this love affair with eyes wide open. Lelio’s not of the school that fun between the sheets among middle-aged people ought to stay offscreen, so he takes a frank look at Gloria and Rodolfo’s intense lovemaking, their far-from-chiseled bodies on full display. The film’s unvarnished depiction of the couple’s sex life is a refreshing change of pace.

Gloria has found herself a new boyfriend. All is right with the world. A retired naval officer, Rodolfo owns a park where gung-ho alpha males go to shoot themselves full of paint-filled pellets. She’s even talked into going bungee jumping. (Methinks that’s not a stuntwoman taking the plunge.) The only roadblock to relationship bliss is the new beau’s refusal to let Gloria meet his two grown daughters. I mean, things are getting serious. Why not introduce her? No good will come out of it, he assures her. Along with his clingy ex-wife, they’re spoiled women who leech off him.

Gloria takes a different tactic on her end, inviting Rodolfo to attend her son’s birthday party. During a masterfully staged dinner sequence in which our heroine reunites with her ex-husband at their son’s birthday party, Lelio sheds some light on the fissures that led to the dissolution of this marriage. Awkward small talk leads to a customary viewing of old photos, and it all goes steadily downhill from there. Rodolfo, an outsider with his own baggage to carry, looks on in horror, stuck as a witness to what becomes a painfully intimate family gathering. Will this airing of dirty laundry doom the budding romance? Lelio’s clear-eyed compassion allows events to unfold in organic fashion, his perceptive direction making us identify with every character, down to the hairless cat that keeps sneaking into Gloria’s apartment.

Holding it all together is García, who carries the film’s dramatic weight on her capable shoulders. Coming across like a cross between Carmen Maura and Charlotte Rampling, she imbues Lelio’s storytelling with a generosity of spirit that makes the familiar subject matter feels fresh and bracingly unpredictable. The jury at last year’s Berlin Film Festival fell head over heels for García, awarding her the Silver Bear for Best Actress. Gloria was Chile’s submission for this year’s Foreign Language Feature Academy Award. It wasn’t selected as one of the five nominees, but from where I’m sitting it’s certainly better than at least one of the finalists contending for the gold (cough cough The Hunt). No matter. Watching Gloria find her way back to love is a pleasure no Oscar snub could ruin. This is a wonderful film.

Gloria starts Jan. 31 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com). It is also scheduled to show at the Classic Gateway Theatre (thegatewaytheatre.com) beginning Feb. 7. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you, devoted reader, for sticking with me as I reach my 200th column for the SunPost. Here’s to more stellar screen performances and an exciting movie year ahead.

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