Claudia Sainte-Luce’s The Amazing Catfish

Laya Maheshwari is a member of the second annual Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. You can follow him on Twitter at @lazygarfield.

As the credits started rolling at the end of The Amazing Catfish, Mexican director Claudia Sainte-Luce’s first feature, I realized I was surrounded by weeping people. Three days later, as Gloria by Sebastián Lelio cut to black, there was instantaneous and incessant applause from the 8,000 audience members at the Piazza Grande, Locarno's signature outdoor venue. Hailing from South America, both films screened only days apart and, in their own way, solicited intense reactions from the crowds. Refreshingly, both films featured strong female characters, something still only rarely seen on film.

Based on the director's real-life experiences, The Amazing Catfish is the story of Claudia, a young and pretty woman, who is nevertheless lonely. Gloria, meanwhile, revolves around a middle-aged divorcee who faces sexual frustration.

The two films fill a screen void left by Hollywood: movies with smart stories featuring female protagonists. But if Catfish and Gloria make it to American shores, audiences will likely be seduced by the strong performances of these two lead actresses. [Editor's Note: Gloria will screen at the 51st New York Film Festival.]

In The Amazing Catfish, Claudia (Ximena Ayala) is a lonely 22 year-old salesperson who moves in with Martha, a middle-aged friend living with HIV, and her peculiar family, attempting to find her niche in her new surroundings even as Martha's health deteriorates. In Gloria, the title character decides to fight loneliness and advancing age, jumping into a whirl of singles' parties and the quest for sexual satisfaction. She meets an ex-naval officer, Rodolfo, and the two embark on a relationship that forces the pair to confront their dark secrets.

Sebastián Lelio's Gloria

Films like Jason Reitman’s Young Adult and Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids pop up, but the list of past films that have tackled similar themes is short. Gloria and The Amazing Catfish break refreshingly new ground, thus emerging as laudable trendsetters.

The Amazing Catfish is emotionally draining, yet it is undoubtedly heartwarming. Once they were done wiping their tears, I noticed audience members beaming with happiness as they left the theater. Claudia’s journey into the hearts of Martha and her family is engaging, absorbing, and immensely satisfying.

Gloria is a much more sprawling tale in comparison to the linear drama of The Amazing Catfish, but it’s nevertheless rewarding. The character study reveals how murky real life is and how “complete endings” are a myth. The conclusion to this particular chapter in Gloria’s life, though, is uplifting beyond measure and the final scene deserves the applause it received. Paulina Garcia won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival for her portrayal of Gloria and it likely won't be the last time she collects accolades for the performance.

Ximena Ayala and Paulina Garcia bring life to their characters, but the films' scripts skillfully evolve the women who face emotional obstacles. By the time both films end, Claudia and Gloria are transformed. Experiencing the journeys of these two unique women, audiences celebrate their ultimate victories.

Gloria and The Amazing Catfish were among my favorite films at Locarno, and feature the best lead performances I have seen for some time. They are special for featuring women characters with a rich complexity, though I wish that wasn't such a rarity.