All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Lennon and McCartney posed the question, and “Gloria” provides an answer. Gloria, played by Paulina Garcia, is a 50-something divorcee whose children have grown up and moved out; she lives by herself in Santiago, Chile, with the occasional company of a hairless cat who visits to escape the raving madness of her upstairs neighbor. Gloria has a job, she’s financially secure, her kids love her even if they don’t visit much, she’s healthy — hell, she’ll even give yoga or bungee-jumping a go — but she’s lonely, and all too aware of the years passing by.

She frequents a club for other singles of “a certain age” as they say, dancing to out-of-date pop tunes with the gray and sagging set, and not opposed to the idea of letting someone take her home. In her oversized glasses and dyed bob, she looks frumpy — indeed, the sight of all these oldsters getting their groove on will both embarrass and terrify many younger viewers — but, catch her in the right light, with the red gloss of her lipstick shining above a toothy grin, or the way she raises her eyebrows and purses her lips in quiet bemusement, and you can still sense something of the girlish that has resisted the weight of middle age.

Gloria (Gloria no Seishun)
Director Sebastian Lelio
Run Time 110 minutes
Language Spanish, English (subtitled in Japanese)

Garcia won the best actress award at last year’s Berlin Film Festival for this performance, and it’s easy to see why. She takes a role that could have been a bit pathetic and turns it into something special, perfectly capturing the saddest part of aging: The body, the appearance, the expectations life places on you all change, but the spirit does not. “Gloria” is a bittersweet movie, showing us a character on the brink of desperate loneliness, but with enough optimism and resiliency to always bounce back.

Truth be told, Garcia’s performance is the best thing in a rather mundane, slow-moving film. Director/writer Sebastian Lelio is good with his actors, but his script is the barest of frameworks in which to place them: Basically Gloria becomes involved with a retired navy officer, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), who seems to be a sweetheart but has too many issues with his ex-wife and daughters. The military angle is a bit of tease, really, hinting at some sort of dark past with the Pinochet dictatorship — a perennial concern of Chilean cinema — but never moving in that direction.

It’s more of a slice of life than anything else, and Lelio delivers better with the touching moments than with the funny ones, though the scene where Gloria exasperatedly ignores the incessant cellphone calls from her repentant lover show amusingly that some things, unfortunately, don’t change with age.

The Dalai Lama was asked about the Oscars this week, and he said he hadn’t watched many movies over the past two decades, adding that movies don’t lead one to compassion. I’d argue he should see “Gloria” — and all of this year’s Oscar-winners, for that matter — and think again. A good movie can awaken our empathy more powerfully than just about any other art form; in “Gloria,” the intimacy Garcia creates with her performance almost erases the distance between the viewer and her, and lets us imagine what this life, this age, this heart must feel like.