Aspen Times Weekly: The glory of an older woman | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: The glory of an older woman

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

In making "Gloria," Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio had a certain type of character in mind: a woman of his mother's age, verging on elderly, but who continues to exhibit signs of youth — playfulness, fearlessness, a desire to take chances and move her life forward. It is the sort of character who might be overlooked in her own surroundings, and has certainly been mostly invisible in the land of mainstream movies.

"The starting point was a feeling there was a movie there where a movie should not be, that would not exist otherwise, about someone who doesn't deserve a film," the 39-year-old Lelio said from Berlin, where he has lived for two years. "The first impulse was, Let's make a film about my mother's generation. An older lady who smiles, sings in the car. That might not sound daring or sexy, but that was the point for me. This is someone who should be a secondary character. There was an idea to transform this secondary character into the main character."

It turns out, though, that even before Lelio had this semi-invisible character in the works, he had a somewhat overlooked actor in mind. For years Lelio had his eye on Paulina García. A respected stage actor and director, the 53-year-old García never got much attention from cinema's casting directors.

"She'd get little parts in a few films and on TV," said Lelio, who began being noticed with his 2005 drama "The Sacred Family," which earned awards at festivals from Miami to Buenos Aires to Geneva. "This is the first time someone asked her to make a main role in a movie. But I've been wanting to put her in a movie for years. Paulina is the heart of the project; I asked if I could write the film for her. And the entire project is contaminated by the idea of giving Paulina an absolute protagonist like she was never asked to do before."

"Gloria," which will be shown on Sunday, Dec. 29 in Aspen Film's Academy Screenings series, reflects that long-simmering desire. The film is a showcase in the extreme. García is never off-screen, and the camera treats her tenderly as she encounters the big range of experiences — romance, family, sex, work — which allows her to exhibit the full gamut of emotions — loneliness, exuberance, heartache, anger, all of it overlaid with an essence of willfulness. It is not a flashy performance, but it is well-rounded and effective, and it earned García the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival.

Lelio had a co-writer on the script, Gonzolo Maza, but the dialogue was mostly improvised, a technique that centered "Gloria" even more around García and her performance.

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"She brought her mystery and her humanity and her understanding of what being a woman is," Lelio said. "That's something I can't get completely, and that's the point — I don't want to get it. It's our explorations, our intuitions of the character."

Instead of writing dialogue, Lelio spent his time building a relationship with García so she could most easily, inconspicuously, slip into the multiple dimensions of the character of Gloria.

"Since I don't give any written dialogue to the actors, they need to feel this trick — that shooting the film, after a lot of preparation, is about getting lost," Lelio said. "I need to create a lot of trust with the actors. What we did was spend a lot of time together, talking about the film but also about books, others films, and going out drinking, dancing. We build this trust to make anything real that would happen later. They have to trust me and believe I will take care of them at the end."

Gloria, a 58-year-old office worker in the capital city of Santiago, has an active social life, and a hopeful one. She regularly spends her nights at dance events where the age is skewed toward her own. She finds happiness in dancing, having a drink, meeting new people, and one night she makes a connection with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a successful businessman some years older than Gloria. Where Gloria is bold and vulnerable, Rodolfo is timid, especially about moving away from his past and into the next phase of life. Gloria ultimately suffers the consequences of her lack of caution.

Virtually all of Gloria's existence — the dance clubs, the office job, the age — is foreign to Lelio. But he had no trouble understanding the essence of her character.

"This characteristic or attitude Gloria has toward life is the element I can relate to naturally, She's someone who's not afraid to take a step into the unknown. She's taken a step toward life," he said. "I guess I admire that in her. I'd like to be more like that.

"The opposite of that attitude is Rodolfo. He's trying, but he doesn't have the tools, he doesn't dare to walk into unknown territory. I like that ability in Gloria, to embrace life with everything that life brings, the good and the evil, and take all that and use it for her own personal evolution."

Lelio appreciates that he had all of Paulina García to work with. "The idea was to express all her talents — her presence, her body, her eyes, her voice were always there," Lelio said. "She's a great artist and an actress at the peak of her expressive tools. The film was about trying to find a way to use all that. The object was to make her shine."

Given the filmmaker's admiration for his star, and how central he made her to the project, could there be any doubt that "Gloria" would end on a rising note? In the final scene, Gloria is still dancing (and to a well-chosen tune from the disco era). Lelio doesn't call it a triumphant tone, but he says there is an inspiring message in the way Gloria has absorbed all she has been through with her spirit undiminished.

"It's all about witnessing how someone can transform, in real time, her own energy, move from one energetic place to another one, to another way to see the world and herself. Maybe a more free one or advanced or joyful or connected," he said. "Maybe that's why that ending provokes such a response. You, the audience, can do that same thing if you choose to."

Reviews of other films showing in the Academy Screenings series (all films are at the Wheeler Opera House):

"The Past" (Friday, Dec. 27 at 5:15): Writer-director Asghar Farhadi moves here from his native Iran, the setting for 2011's magnificent, Oscar-nominated "A Separation," to urban France. Still, the terrain is very similar — tense family dynamics continuously on the verge of full-on explosion. "The Past" is on a somewhat larger scale than the nearly claustrophobic "A Separation" — more characters entwined with one another, a broader city landscape, and of course, a greater sense of how past events weigh on the present. But "The Past" has lagging moments and feels overly long, troubles that did not afflict "A Separation." Still, it is an absorbing look at a family in distress, and stands nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign language film.

"Blue Jasmine" (Saturday, Dec. 28 at 3): The one Woody Allen fans have been waiting two decades for. As with past masterpieces like "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Hannah and Her Sisters," Allen takes a long, close, penetrating look at the female character here. This time it's Jasmine, a fallen New York socialite reduced to moving to San Francisco to live with her sister (Sally Hawkins) and the sister's orbit of boyfriends in a cramped apartment. Allen deftly moves from Jasmine's past, privileged but shaky, to her increasingly delusional and disillusioned present. But the film is practically owned by Cate Blanchett, who gives the sort of performance that puts her in league with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow as Allen's muses. Blanchett is a good bet to earn a second Oscar, after taking best supporting actress honors for 2005's "The Aviator."

"All Is Lost" (Sunday, Dec. 29 at 5:30): Forget "Cast Away," "127 Hours" and other movies of a man stranded alone to confront his fate. "All Is Lost" has little in common with its predecessors. Here, the outside world intrudes not at all as Robert Redford, in a damaged vessel, goes silently and methodically through the steps it takes to keep alive. Dialogue, drama and even overt philosophizing are largely absent. But it's strangely compelling.

"Dallas Buyers Club" (Monday, Dec. 30 at 5:30): Combining core indie elements with a mainstream story structure and emotions, "Dallas Buyers Club" tells of a Ron Woodruff, a hard-living, homophobic rodeo rider in 1980s Texas who contracts AIDS. Woodruff becomes an advocate for fellow patients who need hard-to-get medication, and brings to his new job the same recklessness that marked his old life. Matthew McConaughey's portrayal of Woodruff is powerful enough to make audiences look at the actor in a new light. And Jared Leto, as a transgender woman named Rayon, matches him in acting chops. If there is a flaw, it is in the casting: Jennifer Garner as the sympathetic doctor doesn't ring true.

"Nebraska" (Wednesday, Jan. 1 at 3): Alexander Payne is on familiar ground. As with "Sideways" and "Citizen Ruth," he is looking at characters whose flaws are hard to miss. And like "About Schmidt" and "Election," "Nebraska" is set in the director's native state. But here Payne arrives at a new place of storytelling and character development. His tale of quiet, grouchy, old Woody, traveling with his estranged son from Montana to Nebraska, where he was raised, has layers of sensitivity and humor. Bruce Dern earned the top acting prize at Cannes for his performance as Woody.

"Tim's Vermeer" (Wednesday, Jan. 1 at 5:45): The kind of documentary that makes you go "Wow." Teller, half of the magic duo Penn & Teller, makes his directorial debut with the story of Tim Jenison, an inventor who believes he has figured out the technique used by the Dutch master Vermeer, then sets out to prove his theory by painting a Vermeer.

If you go…

“Gloria”

Sunday, Dec. 29 at 3 p.m.

Wheeler Opera House

Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series runs through Jan. 2, with screenings daily except Tuesday, Dec. 31