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‘Gloria!’ Review: Italian Convent Drama Infuses 18th-Century Baroque Standards with Girl-Power Pop Makeover

The primary strength of this lively yet thinly plotted directorial debut by actor-musician Margherita Vicario lies in its exuberant musical sequences.

Gloria!

With the possible exception of “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” any film boasting an exclamation point in its title typically suggests a lively, full-scale musical. “Gloria!” is a frothy tale set amidst warring classical music sensibilities in a Venetian girls’ refuge, skirting around complete commitment to that rule. However, it’s during moments of complete suspension of reality for all-singing, all-stamping choral ecstasy that Margherita Vicario’s uneven debut truly shines. Yet, elsewhere, this blend of stiff costume drama and contemporary, youth-oriented feminist empowerment is hindered by formulaic scripting, featuring stock characters and plot points that don’t align with Vicario’s loftier artistic aspirations. Nevertheless, the film’s eager energy is difficult to resist, likely to charm festival audiences—starting with Berlin, where it secured a somewhat generous Competition slot—and audiences in Italy alike.

Galatea Bellugi, known to arthouse audiences for her role as the timid kitchen assistant in “The Taste of Things,” takes on a more expressive breakout role as Teresa in this film. Teresa is a remarkably talented young composer who grapples with a social status akin to Cinderella’s at the Sant’Ignazio Institute—a convent-like Catholic shelter for orphaned or marginalized young women. Here, residents receive musical training under the stern tutelage of chapel master Perlina, portrayed by Paolo Rossi, a figure reminiscent of Salieri from “Amadeus.” Vicario’s narrative cleverly evokes comparisons to the clash between old and new guards in 18th-century baroque music, with the new guard represented not by a brash young man but by a subtly rebellious female collective.

Admitted to the Institute after enduring a covert and darkly abusive ordeal resulting in the birth of an illegitimate son—circumstances the film handles with a certain level of discretion—Teresa finds herself regarded as an unworthy servant by both the masters and her fellow girls. Excluded from music lessons, she spends her days cleaning up after her supposed superiors, all while harboring original symphonies within her fingertips. However, Teresa reveals little of her musical talents to others, earning herself the nickname “The Mute” at the Institute, uttered with disdain by all. Among the more fortunate girls is Lucia, the Institute’s first violin, portrayed by Carlotta Gamba. Though skilled but not particularly inspired in her playing, Lucia aspires for escape through her courtship with the wealthy Cristiano, portrayed by Vincenzo Crea.

Teresa’s musical talents are unleashed when a local craftsman presents the Institute with a modern and immediately distrusted instrument: a piano. Perlina, viewing it as an unholy alternative to the trusty organ, relegates it to the basement. It’s there that Teresa, the lowly maid, stumbles upon it and quickly grasps its keys. Teresa’s playing is deliberately anachronistic, influenced more by the pop and jazz of centuries to come than by anything heard in the Institute. When the other girls catch traces of her melodies from upstairs and discover The Mute’s full capacity for joyful noise, they immediately embrace her, though Lucia, tethered to Perlina’s austere traditionalism, remains cautious. As Pope Pius VII is scheduled to visit the Institute for a performance and Perlina faces severe composer’s block, the stage is set for a musical uprising.

“Gloria!” thus finds its footing in history, portrayed through elegantly decaying production design by Luca Servino and Susanna Abenavoli, along with costume designer Mary Montalto’s ruffled, time-worn, pastel-faded gowns. Yet, it draws just as much from the tradition of countless Hollywood entertainments that exude a “let’s-put-on-a-show” vibe, akin to a distant Italian relative of “Sister Act.”

Given Vicario’s background as a popular singer-songwriter, this loose approach to authenticity feels fitting. The film employs modernized compositions, particularly to tether its young female characters to a feminist movement still many generations ahead of them. When a climactic rearrangement of Vivaldi’s eponymous hymn incorporates a bass drop or two, the message might be a tad heavy-handed, yet it carries a mischievous charm that’s easy to overlook. The music resonates with Teresa’s vision of a brighter world, as demonstrated early on when a mundane domestic scene briefly transforms into a fully choreographed music daydream before snapping back to reality.

“Gloria!” could benefit from more of these graceful, heightened touches: When it adheres strictly to drama, it tends to feel a bit stale, highlighting Vicario’s novice storytelling skills. Bellugi delivers a charming enough performance to mask the inherent flatness of her character, as Teresa transitions from noble martyr to inspirational leader, while her female peers are mostly depicted in cheerful girlboss stereotypes. Perlina serves as a predictably one-dimensional antagonist, generic enough in his villainy to represent the patriarchy as a whole. The uplifting message of empowerment here wouldn’t be hindered by a bit of internal conflict on either side, but “Gloria!” is solely focused on reaching the highest of high notes.

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