Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Pablo Larrain

Stars: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Paola Giannini, Cristian Suarez, Giannina Fruttero, Mariana Loyola, Catalina Saavedra.

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Written by Guillermo Calderon (Neruda, etc) and Alejandro Moreno, Ema is a character study about a troubled woman and her journey towards a hard-won catharsis. This is the eighth feature film from Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (Tony Manero, No, etc), who is well known for his hard hitting and politically charged dramas that often explore the troubled and violent recent history of his homeland and historical figures (Jackie, etc). Ema is his first film set in the contemporary world.

Ema (played by relative newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo, a little-known actress who has appeared in several Chilean television soaps) is a troubled punk dancer who is in a volatile relationship with Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal, a regular in Larrain’s films), the older and sterile choreographer and artistic director for the experimental dance company where she works.

The couple had adopted a son Polo (played by Cristian Suarez). But when Polo started a fire that burnt down their house and disfigured Ema’s sister and stuffed a dead cat in the refrigerator the boy was taken away from the couple. This added stress to their troubled relationship and they split up. They both blame each other for their failed parental obligations. Now Ema regrets that decision and sets out to find the boy, against the wishes of Gaston. The social worker also describes Ema as a bad mother and refuses to help her find Polo. “Surely he’s been adopted by another mom who’s better than you!” she snaps at the desperate Ema.

Ema herself has some issues with fire, and often sets fire to things like traffic lights, cars and park swings with a flame thrower. This brings her into contact with Anibal (Santiago Cabrera, from Big Little Lies, etc) a firefighter and bar tender with whom she also starts a torrid relationship. She also seduces divorce lawyer Raquel (Paola Giannini). Ema is not a sympathetic figure – she is selfish, cruel, manipulative and self-destructive.

The film has been nicely shot by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (who previously worked with Larrain on his 2016 biopic of poet Pablo Neruda). Armstrong captures some stunning imagery, and he captures the cityscape of the Valparaiso, almost making the port city another character in the film itself.  

The character of the prickly, free spirited, fiercely independent and strong willed but deeply troubled Ema is a complex one, and Di Girolamo delivers a strong, almost hypnotic performance, and gives her a distinctive look. She captures her aggressive tone and androgynous looks and her uneven mental state perfectly. Her unpredictable actions and volatile nature give the film its strong focal point. This is the third collaboration between star Bernal and director Larrain. Bernal delivers a more subtle performance as Gaston, a similarly unlikable and damaged character who seems haunted by past events and deeply troubled. He brings a restrained anger to his performance.

Ema deals with themes of grief, trauma and family. As with much of Larrain’s oeuvre, this is a confronting film with some explicit and frank sex scenes, and it is not always easy to watch. It also features some quite energetic and strikingly choreographed dance sequences courtesy of Jose Vidal, set to a pumping reggaeton soundtrack. (For the uninitiated, reggaeton is a form of dance music of Puerto Rican origin, characterized by a fusion of Latin rhythms, dancehall, and hip-hop or rap).

Ema is almost an experimental film, with lots of the dialogue improvised by the actors on set. Early scenes have an impressionistic tone that almost makes it impenetrable, and the film’s semi-coherent narrative becomes a little muddled and messy. Like most of Larrain’s previous films there is a coldness to the material that prevents audiences from becoming too emotionally engaged.

Fire may be a recurring motif throughout the film, but unfortunately this drama refuses to heat up. As usual this is a challenging film that will not appeal to everyone. Fans of the director’s previous films will find more to enjoy about Ema, which retains some of his signature touches.

Ema premiered at the recent Spanish Film Festival and has now gained a limited release on the art house circuit.


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