To get at what's refreshing about Gloria, a funny, sexy and satisfying character study that's one of 2014's first arthouse sleepers, it's almost easier to describe what it doesn't do. It features a middle-aged woman as its protagonist, but it doesn't make her body and libido into punchlines. It has the basic premise of a sitcom — woman finds seemingly perfect lover, only to compete with the demands of his ex and grown kids — but doesn't treat the complications in dopey sitcom ways. That said, when a movie can set up a paintball-revenge scenario that results in anything other than forehead smacking, you're watching something special.
From the opening scene of its heroine, a divorced office worker and mother of grown children, mustering her nerve and scanning the slim pickings on a Santiago dance floor, we're not just watching a movie about someone we've known: We're watching a movie about someone we've been. She's played by veteran Chilean actor Paulina García, in the kind of performance routinely called fearless — "fearless," as Mike D'Angelo once pointed out, being criticspeak for "gets naked." But García deserves it, for inhabiting the role so fully without distancing.
On the dance floor, Gloria catches the eye of a divorced naval officer named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), whose occupation seems less a nod to the Pinochet years than to his exaggerated sense of duty — particularly to his adult daughters and ex-wife. Hot sex leads to warm companionship and what looks like a future. But to Gloria, who enjoys cooler relations with her own ex and grown children, the constant ringing of his cellphone starts to sound like a wake-up call: a sign he's only wedged another item onto his to-do list.
At a time when Lena Dunham can't make a move without touching off a referendum on her looks and likability, this crowd-pleasing Chilean comedy-drama — directed by Sebastián Lelio (The Sacred Family) from a sharp script he wrote with Gonzalo Maza — seems almost revolutionary in its matter-of-factness about its leads' aging bodies and immutable hang-ups. (Here's a glimpse of taboo male vanity you'll never see in a contemporary American movie: horny Gloria hungrily ripping off Rodolfo's girdle.) These are characters with experiences and complicated histories that can't be entirely explained away, and we can sympathize to an extent with everyone in Lelio's unusually intimate 'Scope frame — so much so that early audiences have taken sides whether Rodolfo really needs to "grow a pair," as Gloria seethes, or Gloria is too needy, neurotic and desperate to see his worth.
Both may be true. But so is the emotional immediacy of García's performance, whether she's eyeing a neighbor's hideous hairless cat with heavy-lidded disdain, undoing a blouse with cobra-stare confidence or trudging back to a hotel in a dejected shame-walk. As a send-off, director Lelio welcomes her back onto the dance floor, bruised but hopeful, for the jubilant pop pealing of Umberto Tozzi's original "Gloria" (the one Laura Branigan made famous in the U.S.). Your spirits can't help but lift hearing it. García makes us believe it was written for her.