Gloria (Paulina García) is a 58-year-old divorcée. Her children have all left home but she has no desire to spend her days and nights alone. Determined to defy old age and loneliness, she rushes headlong into a whirl of singles’ parties on the hunt for instant gratification – which just leads repeatedly to disappointment and emptiness. But then she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), an ex-naval officer seven years her senior to whom she feels romantically inclined. She even begins to imagine a permanent relationship. However, the encounter presents unexpected challenges and Gloria gradually finds herself being forced to confront her own dark secrets.

An accurate, intimate account of the older dating scene.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: As essayed, beautifully, by the Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, Gloria is a divorcee in her late fifties, the mother of two grown-up children, and a woman searching, hopefully but not desperately, for some romantic connection amid the 'mature’ singles nights of present-day Santiago. Faintly comical at first glance, a world of Pringle jumpers and too much jewellery, this is in fact a realm of remarkable cruelty, where every encounter is fraught with potential humiliation, and one’s fragile sense of worth can be destroyed in an instant by a careless phrase, a change in song, or the sudden appearance of somebody younger, or hotter, or both.

[Gloria's] courage is fully equalled by the filmmaker’s

That Gloria dares negotiate this minefield at all is to her credit. And her courage is fully equalled by the filmmaker’s. What could in less capable hands so easily have been mishandled, lapsing either into patronising comedy or sappy sentimentality, is accorded generous and sympathetic treatment here: the film is often funny (and occasionally devastatingly sad), but it’s never less than compassionate to its subject, or respectful of her quiet, determined quest to be loved.

At a disco one night she mets Rodolfo, a newcomer to the scene, divorced for less than a year. She flirts with him, takes him home with her (Gloria’s unabashed appetite for sex is one of her most likeable traits), and attempts to begin a relationship, though it’s unclear whether this is because she perceives something valuable in him, or out of a simple need for companionship. But there are hints, from the start, that their romance will be short-lived—not least the fact that he will not reveal the new woman in his life to his two adult daughters (whom he continues to support financially), or the ex-wife to whom he still appears to be in thrall.

The arc of their relationship forms the spine of this story. But sympathy, it should be noted, does not equal indulgence. Co-writers Sebastián Leilo and Gonzalo Maza allow Gloria to be deceived, to occasionally seem selfish or vain or simply thoughtless. One of the key scenes here—a birthday dinner, attended not only by her own grown children, but also by her ex-husband and his second wife—takes particular care to dispense criticism evenly across genders as well as generations, making even Rodolfo’s abrupt disappearance (he feels neglected, an outsider among so much family history) seem justified, when considered from his point of view.

It’s a remarkably intimate portrayal. So much so, in fact, that the viewer at times feels almost complicit in Gloria’s exploits. Part of this is due to the shooting style: filming largely in close-up, with a handheld camera, cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta almost never leaves Gloria’s side. For an actress, this creates a considerable responsibility—the burden, effectively, of carrying the entire film—yet Garcia is more than up to the task. Though partly obscured by oversized glasses (a way of hiding from the world?), her face is extraordinarily alive, communicating every flicker of happiness and disappointment with almost musical precision. And crucially, she also looks exactly right—neither especially beautiful nor exceptionally glamorous, but exactly like what she’s meant to be: an average metropolitan woman of her particular age and background.

This honesty extends to the lovemaking scenes, which Echazarreta observes with a cool candour that could seem dispassionate, were it not so scrupulously respectful. The paunches, the folds and cellulite of real bodies are laid bare, yet the tone is neither overly reverent nor exploitative, merely truthful—albeit in a way that most cinema takes care to avoid.

Director Leilo first came to attention with 2005’s excellent La Sagrada Familia, and as that title suggests, his preoccupations have changed very little in the meantime. He’s fascinated by the bonds of family: its simmering resentments, its bonds and obligations. And, above all, with the casual damage its members inflict upon each other. (He’s said in the past that he sees the institution as 'a sacred trap.’)

A remarkable director of actors, he’s also a subtle and clever stylist—never more so than when, for a brief moment here, he inserts a few bars of Mahler’s 'Adagettio’ into a scene of Gloria catching her reflection in a mirror at the hairdresser’s. She is struck, suddenly, by how old she appears—and for certain viewers, that music must inevitably recall another film about the irreconcilability of age and romantic longing: Visconti’s classic Death in Venice. (His final song-choice, meanwhile, is entirely predictable and right, a moment of triumphant perfection.)

Few things these days are quite so dispiriting, so corrosive to the human soul, as sitting through the Coming Attractions at a multiplex. A seemingly endless barrage of digital explosions, crumbling skyscrapers, superheroes, more explosions, zombies . . . As you slump in your chair, numbed into submission, you might be forgiven for wondering whether movies actually concern themselves any longer with depicting the complexities of an ordinary human life.

This film—so shrewd and sharp and uncondescending—goes a little way toward redressing the balance. Iron Man might soar into the stratosphere; the Wolverine can slash his enemies to bloodied ribbons. But to dare to pursue love? To assert yourself a sexual being long after society has decided it has no use for you? This is heroic.

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1 hour 50 min
In Cinemas 27 February 2014,