Sebastián Lelio is on a roll. The Chilean filmmaker established a name for himself as a sympathetic observer of unfairly marginalized characters in such dramas as Gloria (2013), A Fantastic Woman (2017), and Disobedience (2017), with stories about, respectively, a lonely middle-aged single woman, an ostracized transgender woman, and an Orthodox Jewish lesbian bucking religious laws.
All the above featured perceptive writing and acting in the service of Lelio’s steady track record of sticking up for females challenged by unfair social strictures. Art cinema audiences took notice. So it was probably only a matter of time before the 45-year-old Santiago native made his move to North America. Based on his work in Chilean and British settings, we could imagine that his new one, a Chile-U.S.A. production called Gloria Bell, might struggle to be just as eye-openingly original as his other work. After all, it’s an English-language remake of Gloria.
Never fear. With Julianne Moore as the title newcomer to the dating game, John Turturro as her most prominent date, a talented supporting cast, and the input of screenwriter/stage performer Alice Johnson Boher — who adds appropriate Southern California situations to her and Lelio’s adaptation of the original screenplay — Gloria Bell is a treasure.
Recently divorced Gloria (Moore) is an insurance claims adjustor who lives alone with her cat and enjoys yoga, going out to Eighties-oldies dance clubs, and singing while driving. She also relaxes with a daily puff of cannabis. Her grownup children (Michael Cerna and Caren Pistorius) are the picture of gormlessness, and yet Gloria puts up with their foolish schemes, to a degree. She also keeps an eye on her widowed mother (Holland Taylor).
One night at the dance club an uncomfortable-looking man named Arnold (Turturro) comes on to her awkwardly at the bar, and they enter into a relationship that we can instantly see will go nowhere. At this point in the scenario we can’t help noticing that the pace and texture of Gloria’s story are slightly — no, make that radically — different than most stateside romantic comedies. We can credit filmmaker Lelio’s Latin point of view for that.
Here and in the original Spanish-language version, Gloria projects a certain live-and-let-live attitude, quite the antithesis of the typical Hollywood single woman on the prowl for a mate. We could go ahead and call it her cariño, the calm, welcoming, caring world view that automatically assumes the best of other people, even when they’re obvious schnooks. It’s the same characteristic we recognize in, say, Roma and other films by Alfonso Cuarón, or in the satirical nervous breakdowns of Pedro Almodóvar, or in the movies of Lelio’s chileno colleagues Sebastián Silva (The Maid) and Pablo Larraín (Jackie; Neruda). Lelio depicts his people slowly, carefully, at their own speed. Moore’s Gloria may be an overlooked red-haired salary-woman with poor taste in men and a crazy upstairs neighbor, but she has a distinct Latin sensibility. It’s her saving grace.
As everyone knows, Moore is one the very finest portrayers of characters on the big screen. Here, amid constant cell phone interruptions and ungrateful offspring, is the American woman, circa 2019 — a distant cousin of the frustrated females Moore portrayed for directors Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Rebecca Miller (Maggie’s Plan), but up against the same soul-crushing obstacles. Those obstacles are embodied in Turturro’s morose Arnold, with his paintball park business and his clinging ex-wife and daughters. What did Gloria ever do to deserve Arnold? The two actors are in absolutely perfect sync with their director.
Gloria Bell does not duplicate each and every detail of Gloria, instead setting up its own set of embarrassing challenges for our heroine. Of course there’s an excruciating dinner party, in which Arnold meets Gloria’s ex-husband and their mixed-up children. Gloria and Arnold’s “get away from it all” trip to Las Vegas may be one of the very saddest examples of that overused location. Gloria’s work mate Melinda, played by veteran character actor Barbara Sukowa (star of R.W. Fassbinder’s Lola), offers advice but has worse problems of her own. Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings) has about five minutes as a Vegas gargoyle.
It occurs to us that maybe Gloria should find a different crowd to hang around with. But that would spoil the mood and run counter to her destiny. Behind the splendid play-acting of Moore and Turturro, Gloria has been put on this earth to suffer, and to smile bravely through her humiliation. It’s her cross to bear. Hail Gloria! And hail Gloria Bell.