The pitch for Gloria from virtually every angle has always been some variant on "yada yada, but Paulina García is amazing". And boy, is she ever. Few actors are ever called upon to support an entire feature-length film with such totality - there is, I think, a grand total of one shot in which she doesn't appear (it features an obviously metaphorical skeleton marionette) - and García doesn't put a single foot wrong anywhere in the entire feature. It is a film that's almost impossible to disentangle from the performance, and insofar as García's is clearly one of the best performances to reveal itself in U.S. theaters in the last couple of years, that's enough to make Gloria essential viewing.

For essential viewing, though, the film has some rather severe shortcomings. Take the notion where García appears in virtually every frame, for example: on paper, it's a smart trick for director Sebastián Lelio to play, but the execution is necessarily strained as a result. The film chokes on its plethora of medium shots, since that's just about the only thing it can have; medium shots, spiced up with close-ups of García to provide any kind of visual variety whatsoever. Charges that the film is "boring" (which are oddly persistent, despite the film's obvious kineticism and acerbic take on romantic comedy tropes) spring, I think, from this deadening sameness to all of the images, as much as from anything. When a film bores the eyes, it takes out a great deal of necessary energy and liveliness.

Which is too bad, because it's awfully easy to want Gloria to be an unambiguously great movie. García is one reason. Another is the script by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, which approaches one of the most verboten topics in world cinema, the sexual and romantic yearnings of a single woman on the receding edge of middle age, and fleshes it out with smart details about Gloria's life and personality. The film isn't funny, but it has a sort of wry attitude, shared by its protagonist, that leaves it feeling good-natured and disinterested in taking itself too seriously. No shrill drama about the suffering cause by the aging process, just a knowing, mildly regretful character whom the film allows room to be both righteous and thoroughly self-destructive both. Gloria is as fully-rounded as movie characters get, etched with such particular nuance by the script and the performer that it's impossible not to like her and to invest ourselves in the events of her life, and to find her tremendously frustrating when she makes some garden-variety mistakes, sometimes standing too firmly out of pointless obstinance, sometimes giving in too quickly to the pathetic pleadings of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), her on-again, off-again boyfriend throughout the movie, who clearly falls in the "the best I could do at short notice" category of lovers. And for all that she can be frustrating, Gloria can also be inspiring, the kind of self-aware, self-directed person that any of us would be lucky to be as we approach 60.

The sublimely little details with which García carves this character out of the screenplay is virtually impossible to describe, since the effect is cumulative as much as it has to do with any one gesture or line reading or facial expression. Having the camera's full attention gives her a great deal of space to indicate who Gloria is through individual moments stitched together, rather than having some fully completed idea of the character in all her particulars that have to be communicated through each and every scene. It's a lovely performance, full of surprising reactions, wonderful brittle humor, and explosions of vitality that come up so organically and naturally that they hardly feel contrived, but are so bold, decisive, and different from the expected way the character could be played that it's never, ever possible to predict her. This is Gena Rowlands and Liv Ullmann territory we enter here, the realm of live-wire actressing that surprises and challenges, that defines character through unusual and unconventional choices, that hews to neither realism or nor traditional grand theatrical gestures.

It's not fair to say that the film wouldn't be anywhere near as interesting with a performance like García's at the center of it, because without that performance, Gloria wouldn't likely exist at all. The dramatic content is entirely a subordinate function of the character building (in brief: a woman whose family and ex-husband all like her but have mostly moved on to other things tries to forge ahead, finds it difficult when the man she ends up falling for turns out be too hamstrung by his own past to function independently, even as a 60something adult), and the aesthetics are too flat to even call them "subordinate" - they really don't even exist. García is a theatrical icon in Chile as much as a movie actress, and while her performance is too perfectly scaled to the intimacy of a movie camera to suggest that a stage Gloria would be in any way like the screen Gloria, the reason for that has absolutely nothing to do with the way it has been filmed or cut, outside of its actively energetic and exciting dance party finale. This is not ever a good thing to say about a work of cinema, and as powerful an experience as it is exploring a psychological state, it's not always particularly worthwhile as a movie.

Gloria herself is such a commanding figure, whose life is so unlike the standard movie protagonist in every regard (age, gender, nationality, just for starters; and the more it delves into her goals and the way she pursues those goals, the more unique she becomes yet), that her movie still ends up being quite a rewarding thing to watch. But I confess, movies whose primary reason for being is to show off the life and inner workings of an individual are never my favorites. For what it is, Gloria could hardly be improved, but what it is is already a bit needlessly limiting. See it, absolutely see it right this minute, for Paulina García, who I honestly think might be one of the best living screen actresses with my sample size of two (later in the same year that Gloria premiered, she also excelled in Illiterates, a film that is otherwise actively deficient in many places where Gloria is merely ordinary). But I cannot in honest suggest that you see it for any other reason.