Many have noted the number of strong recent roles for what would have once been referred to as "women of a certain age." The award-season conversation this year is centered largely on actresses including Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Julia Roberts, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Emma Thompson. The once-common idea that there is little place in the movies for women past 40 is deservedly on the way out.
Enter "Gloria." Directed and co-written by Sebastián Lelio, the Chilean film deals specifically with a single, divorced woman, her children now adults, on a rocky path toward self-discovery and personal renewal. The small-scale humiliations and setbacks of the dating scene cannot stop her swell of inner strength and the passionate force she is in the process of becoming. Paulina García won best actress when the film first premiered at last year's Berlin Film Festival for her quietly powerful performance in the title role.
Though the film is the fourth feature made by Lelio, 39, "Gloria" is his first to be commercially released in the United States. (The film, distributed by Roadside Attractions, opens in Los Angeles on Jan. 24.) It was also his biggest hit in Chile, even moving from the entertainment pages to jump-start a conversation on op-ed and cultural pages regarding women, aging, sensuality and society.
While drawing influence from such American films as "A Woman Under the Influence," "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "An Unmarried Woman," Lelio's film had its foundations in conversations with his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, regarding the generation of their mothers, whom they saw as strong but too often placed in the background.
"What excited us is that this is not a place to find a film, according to the clichés," said Lelio alongside García while in Los Angeles for the AFI Fest. "You should be looking for more spectacular subjects or plots or high-concept films. But here, the normality of the world we were going to explore was precisely what was exciting.
"And that was mixed with this idea of the reinvigorating energy that the film has toward a forgotten character, a character that in a way doesn't deserve a film. She would be a secondary character, [but] we wanted to give her something of her own."
And they knew just who they wanted. A respected actress in Chile, with a background mostly in theater and television, García was someone Lelio and Maza had been aware of ever since she appeared on a Chilean soap opera in the early '80s, and they wanted to tailor their story specifically to her. Just in telling her the idea for the character and outlining the story, she was in.
"It's about a woman in the second line of life, and she works her way up to the front line," said García, 53. "She decides to be the star of her life."
"Gloria" was this year's submission from Chile for the Academy Awards' foreign language category. And though the film did not make it through to the shortlist of nine, last year's Chilean entry, Pablo Larraín's "No," was one of the final five nominees. (Larraín and his brother, Juan, are producers on "Gloria.") The nomination for "No" and the visibility now for "Gloria" are part of a recent wave of Chilean filmmaking on the international festival and arthouse circuit, including Marialy Rivas' "Young & Wild," Alicia Scherson's "The Future," Dominga Sotomayor Castillo's "Thursday Till Sunday" and Sebastian Silva's "Crystal Fairy" and "Magic Magic."
Lelio is reluctant to ring the bell too loudly for any sort of Chilean New Wave, however.
"The last few years, this visibility is the product of years of work," Lelio said. "So for us it feels natural. Seen from outside it seems sudden, but it's not. It's the result of years of work of an entire generation."
One thing that does bind many of the recent Chilean films is their sensitivity to the political undercurrents of everyday life. As a generation of filmmakers has emerged after the demise of dictatorship and the rise of democracy, they are finely attuned to the way the personal and political become intertwined.
"In a way, for us, it was like a personal revolution," said Lelio of creating the journey for Gloria. "For me, in a way, they are related processes. The future-oriented energy of Gloria is the same future-oriented energy that is modernizing the country. But what was exciting for me was it was a lady who is not a left-wing intellectual, not the intelligentsia, which is the point. We all have a potential revolutionary energy inside."
It wasn't long before shooting was scheduled to start on the film that Lelio was searching for a title for the film, a name for the main character and a song for her expressive, transformative dance at the end. That was until he came upon Umberto Tozzi's original Italian Euro-disco version of the song "Gloria," known to many through Laura Branigan's 1982 cover version.
It was the sort of nick-of-time discovery that had marked the project from the conception of the character to its award-winning reception on the festival circuit.
"Everything about 'Gloria' has been a surprise," García said. "I used to say to Sebastian that we are running after Hurricane Gloria. You usually run away from a hurricane, but now we're running after Hurricane Gloria."