The Chilean director used his own mother as a starting point for his award-winning drama about an elderly divorcée.
12 Jun 2013 - 1:27 PM  UPDATED 12 Jun 2013 - 1:27 PM

The ultimate Palme d'Or winner, Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Colour, made a sensational arrival late in the program in Cannes this year. Similarly, the undoubted favourite last February in Berlin was Sebastián Lelio's Chilean movie, Gloria. The big difference is that while Kechiche's drama featured young nubile women making out, Gloria focuses on a 58-year-old divorcee looking for love – and yes, she gets physical with an even older man.

It’s based on things that we heard and we realised we live in a world that is so insanely obsessed with youth

Clearly, the Berlin jury couldn't go past actress Paulina García (who was 51 at the time of filming) when awarding their best actress prize, but the Golden Bear for best film went to Călin Peter Netzer's Romanian film, Child's Pose, which is also very good. Sydney Film Festival audiences can see for themselves, as both films are part of this year's program.

It was truly a treat to chat with the candid Chilean director Pablo Larraín (the Oscar nominated No) and the equally candid Sebastián Lelio, who here directs his fourth feature after The Sacred Family (2005), Christmas (2009), and The Year of the Tiger (2011). Perhaps it's no coincidence that Larraín and his brother Juan de Dios Larraín are two of Gloria's producers. Another Chilean director Sebastián Silva (The Maid) had two English-language films in Sundance: the popular Crystal Fairy (also produced by the Larraín brothers) and the less successful Magic, Magic (featuring Australia's Emily Browning in a supporting role). One might say the Chileans are coming! Certainly they're a young bunch. Lelio is 39, Larraín is 36 and Silva is 34.

Lelio notes how the new filmmaking surge is the result of Chile coming out of the Pinochet dictatorship into democracy. “We recovered democracy in 1990 after 18 years of dictatorship, and 20 years after that in 2005 there was the first explosion of new Chilean films and among them was my first film, The Sacred Family.

“They were little films, but the feeling they all had on us was, 'Wow, something new is happening here!' This was a new way of understanding cinema in order to represent Chile. Eight years after that we are at this point where we are regularly making films, there are a lot of new directors, there are a lot of new networks in the world that are supporting the new Chilean cinema in one way or another. The last time that a Chilean film was in the Berlin competition was in 1991.”

Before it was completed, Gloria had already won a Film in Progress award at the 2012 San Sebastían Festival last September. When we spoke last February, Lelio was living in the German capital as the recipient of a European DAAD grant to develop his new projects, including his short films. He has since been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is an over achiever not unlike Larraín, and it's interesting that they both come from the Chilean upper middle class.

“In Latin America, cinema has always been a bourgeois activity, I guess as it is everywhere,” he laments. “It's just a stupidly expensive art form and there is nothing you can do about it. I don't come from a rich family but my parents are professionals. My influence was coming more from my grandparents who were doctors and their house was filled with books and I would go there into the library and read them. My stepfather was in the navy so I got to know a side of Chile that is not what you would expect from an artist. But I owe so much to that because I've been in the two dimensions.”

Lelio admits that he and Larraín, whose father is a right-wing politician, aren't alone. “Nietzsche's father was a priest. So nothing is better than a bad education.”

Speaking of Bad Education and fascism, Lelio explains how he had been inspired to create his tribute to women partly by the films of Pedro Almodóvar though more by the gritty realism of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. He pays homage to their 1980 classic Gloria with his new film. Most of all, it was his own mother who inspired the Gloria character.

“Creative processes are always very opaque,” he admits. “Afterwards you tend to pretend that everything was planned and it was a strategy, but it was not like that at all. I was just always moved by seeing my mother singing in the car. My mother always sings in the car and I see in Santiago other woman driving and singing alone in the car and I was always thinking there is a movie there. This woman driving, carrying along her own hopes and fears and dreams and singing them aloud.”

Together with his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, Lelio conducted extensive research. “It became this long process of interviewing friends of my mother, and my mother, and her mother, and other mothers and then discovering the single adults parties in Santiago. That was a completely unknown planet! Eventually, the world of the film started to evolve. It's based on things that we heard and we realised we live in a world that is so insanely obsessed with youth.”

In Berlin during her promotion for Top of the Lake, Jane Campion said that she likes to make films with older women or about older women because they are one of the invisible groups in society – and that it's a lot easier to surprise because people assume that nothing happens in their lives. Lelio agrees.

“There is almost like a taboo, a stupid, childish taboo regarding this age group. Nobody says they have romance and they make love. It's like you are not supposed to talk about that and that's so stupid because we are human beings until we die.”

Under fascism, women generally didn't fare very well in Chile, though Lelio stresses his film tells a universal story. It's about a generation of women recovering from basically being kept down, he says.

“This generation of women in Chile went to Catholic schools, they were raised for marriage and now at this age they are recovering after their families have fallen apart, after they have been abandoned, after their children have left. And now that nobody really has time for them, nobody really listens to them, they say, 'No, fuck it, I am gonna live now!'”

In order to show this in a graphic manner, Leilo decided that Gloria should go bungee jumping.

“This guy had an amusement park called Vertigo Park, which I adored! Then I saw this swing thing and I was thinking like, 'Hmmm, maybe she should do it.'

“'Paulina would you?' She was like, 'Yeah, but you know maybe I could die and then you could not finish the film.' I said, 'Okay,' and I did it first. We were shooting and we took half an hour, they put everything on me and I said, 'Waaah, see, you don't die!'

“Actually, I'd never done it before and I was terrified. But I needed to do it in order to convince her.”

It was all worth it, as the scene became one of the most memorable in the film.

“It's really strange because we did that in a very organic way,” Lelio recalls. “It was not written, it just appeared as a possibility and we took it and now it's one of the images that somehow contains Gloria's dilemma or situation, just as the other scene when she is spinning in the wheel. It's kind of the same type of vertigo of the soul.”

Gloria screens at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival. Click here for our full coverage.