In 2013, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio debuted Gloria, an intelligent, compassionate Spanish-language film about a Santiago divorcee looking for love on the dance floor. It made the festival circuit and was widely beloved by critics, as was his 2017 follow-up, A Fantastic Woman, winning him Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Academy Awards. Yet even with some of the greatest international accolades in filmmaking under his belt, Lelio’s real prize was yet to come—the opportunity to cast none other than Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell, an American reimagining of his original film.
For many, Lelio’s decision to direct a near shot-for-shot remake of his own successful movie—aged less than five years—didn’t sit quite right. It was too soon, too corporate, too American. Did he lose faith in his original vision? Clearly, those concerned had forgotten what it’s like to watch Julianne Moore act.
Vibrant, honest and essential, Moore’s Gloria is not better than Paulina García’s, but rather an equally real and complex version of her, milling about on some other plane of existence—or perhaps just another continent. Her depth isn’t borne out of the overwrought monologues and tears that win actresses of a certain age accolades, but of the unadorned habits of an everyday woman, from crooning along to Olivia Newton-John to washing her bras in the bathroom sink. Almost by extension of Moore’s lived-in performance, Lelio’s Gloria Bell is just as subtle and rewarding as the original, granting American audiences a new look into his brand of filmmaking through a simple story brimming with the comedy of life.
The film closely follows the events of its predecessor, simply transplanted from the valleys of Santiago to the valleys of southern California. Gloria lives alone in an airy apartment, a sunny idyll save for one aggressive neighbor and a hairless cat that keeps slipping through the cracks and hopping up on her kitchen counter. Her two adult children are struggling with their own tumultuous lives nearby, and they accept their mother’s assistance reluctantly—Peter (Michael Cera) is a new father whose wife seems to have disappeared on a spiritual journey, and Anne (Caren Pistorius) is a yoga teacher falling for a Swedish surfer who, as Gloria puts it, might die tomorrow.
While Gloria’s genuine interest in her children’s lives never feels like overbearance, it begins to teeter on the edge of loneliness and uncertainty—the classic narrative of a single adult woman unsure of how to exist alone. During the day, she’s careful, assessing risk and reassuring clients as an insurance agent, but at night, she begins to let loose on the dance floor of her city’s discos. It might be a contrived way to meet someone new, but meet someone she does—specifically Arnold (John Turturro), a gentle, recently divorced owner of an adventure park who, like Gloria, loves to dance.
From afar, the pairing seems improbable—Gloria’s perfectly coiffed red mane, sexy wrap dresses and enviable cheekbones quickly overwhelm Arnold’s sheepish grin and middle-aged mediocrity, but the film is as much about this imbalance as anything else. As they fall for each other through poetry dates and dinner and paintball, Gloria is endlessly patient with Arnold, even while he is so clearly beholden to his ex-wife and adult daughters who constantly call him. Terrible, ringing iPhones cause so much pain and confusion in Gloria Bell, you’d think Lelio had a personal vendetta against Apple. At one point, Gloria drops Arnold’s phone in his bowl of soup just to prevent him from answering it.
Inevitably, their relationship begins to fray, thanks to these iPhones, exes, children, self-doubt and self-love. It’s here that the film begins to flirt with the treacly tropes of middle-aged renaissance movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love, but, with all due respect to Diane Lane and Julia Roberts, it’s much too smart for any of that. Instead, Gloria Bell allows room for raw and honest conflict, letting its title character bypass some preconceived journey toward happiness in favor of genuine, kinetic living. Shots of Gloria ascending neon-lighted escalators in Las Vegas, lying naked and hungover on her bed and smoking pot on the floor aren’t played for laughs or used as signaling devices for her age—they’re framed and scored like small spiritual moments, glimpses into some greater self that exists alongside the everyday.
This mixture of the magical and the mundane carries Gloria Bell to the very end, and although its conclusion isn’t free of rom-com cliche (see: a killer green dress, a wedding and revenge), Lelio’s lens and Moore’s performance make it fresh—and tinged with melancholy. Gloria occasionally speaks in platitudes herself, at one point saying if the world were to end, she’d want to “go down dancing.” In the end, the film does everything to validate her point of view, no matter how magical her thinking might be. ◆
Starring Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera, Caren Pistorius, Brad Garrett, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Rita Wilson, Sean Astin and Holland Taylor. Written by Alice Johnson Boher and Sebastián Lelio, and directed by Lelio. At Boston Common and Kendall Square.