Gloria: Paulina Garcia’s mature role reflects society’s coming of age

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Hamlet, says Paulina Garcia, only begins when the actor is there. The character doesn’t exist without the performer. It’s something she had to remind herself of, she says, as she was working to create a character – a fictional figure she was giving life to.

Garcia won a best actress award at Berlin last year for that role in the Chilean film Gloria. She gives the kind of performance that should by rights be in contention for an Oscar this weekend: it’s a candid, funny, revealing, utterly believable depiction of a life, portrayed with an unusual mixture of directness and complexity.

Gloria is middle-aged and she’s been divorced for more than 10 years. She has two adult children, a grandchild, and another on the way. She has an office job that doesn’t particularly interest her. She likes to go dancing. And she’s looking for something more – there’s an energy and an appetite in her approach to life that’s utterly believable and engrossing, never idealised or sentimentalised.

Writer-director Sebastian Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza constructed a narrative for Gloria, rather than a screenplay. ”They made a kind of map for the character’s journey, and said, ‘you have to be there at that time, not earlier, not later’. I was clear about that map, I was clear about the schedule, but not about the dialogue, and what I had to do between these two points.”

Thinking about improvising dialogue, she says, she drew on details of her own life: ”The poetry I read, the songs I listen to, the streets I used to walk, the people I meet, the films I see … And then we mixed it up in a blender.”

There was a stage when Gloria was facing a serious illness, but gradually that idea disappeared.

Lelio created the film especially for Garcia. He’s said that one of the things that inspired him was the idea of taking a camera, and then turning it 90 degrees – focusing on a character we don’t normally see at the centre of the action: a middle-aged woman leading a seemingly regular, uneventful life.

And the centre is where he places the figure of Gloria. She’s the axis of the movie, its raison d’etre. She’s in virtually every frame, and Benjamin Echazarreta’s camera follows her in close, intimate detail.

Gloria has a zest for life, Garcia says, and a conviction that there is more to come. ”She thinks that the missing thing is love. In one way she is certain of that, because she doesn’t know what else it could be.” She embarks on a relationship with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) a retiring man who seems to appreciate her energy and her candour – but there are complications that only gradually become clear.

There are sex scenes in Gloria, handled in a way that doesn’t seem intrusive: ”It was important for us to feel relaxed in those scenes, but more important to make them real … not beautiful,” Garcia says.

The challenge, she says, ”is not just the shame of being naked at this age, but because it’s important to be there” – by which she means, to be in character. You can use nakedness as a mask, she believes, a way of hiding the self.

Gloria is an intimate portrait of an individual, but Garcia believes that it’s also a film that springs from its place and its time.

She remembers how in Chile, after a screening, ”a guy came to me and said he feels that our society has changed, and the film tells us how that’s happening”.

It reflects the political and social transformations that have taken place during Gloria’s lifetime, since the end of the dictatorship of Pinochet. There’s democracy, there’s greater autonomy for women, there’s a certain autonomy for everyone, she says, but these possibilities bring challenges, and demand decisions.

”We are growing up, we are getting older. A dictatorship treats you like a child.”

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