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EMA (2019) review

August 15, 2021


written by: Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno
produced by: Juan de Dios Larraín
directed by: Pablo Larraín
rated: R (for strong sexual content, nudity and language)
runtime: 107 min.
U.S. release date: 2019 (Venice International Film Festival) & August 13, 2021 (limited theaters)


While Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s last feature film was “Jackie”, his English-language debut from 2016, which created an immersive and emotional portrait of Jackie Kennedy days before and after her husband’s assassination, the filmmaker has been quite busy as a co-producer (Sebastián Lelio’s last two films,”A Fantastic Woman” and “Gloria Bell”) and helming all eight episodes of “Lisey’s Story”, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel that dropped last month on Apple TV+. His latest and eighth feature is the hypnotic and artful “Ema”, which finds Larraín returning to Chile to tell an unsettling albeit intoxicating tale that revolves around guilt, manipulation, and self-destruction, while weaving creative freedom and pyromania throughout.

Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) is a restless force of nature, a dancer in her late twenties married to choreographer Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal), the older director of a dance company where she performs performance art pieces. The couple may have been in love once, but now it’s clear they are fractured, either despondent with each other or arguing, throwing hurtful insults at each other such as “infertile” (him) and “monster” (her), confirming that ultimately these two are no good for each other.

Turns out they were also no good for 7-year-old Polo (Cristián Suárez), the orphan boy they adopted and then returned to the state’s bureaucratic foster care system after he burned a family member’s face. What haunts the fiery Ema and the infertile Gastón the most is uncertain – is it the guilt over abandoning Polo or is it moreso due to the heinous act the boy did while under their supposed care? Ema not only has a literal burning desire to light objects with a flame thrower, but she also has a figurative burning desire to mother, even though the feral and anarchic woman is obviously not parenting material. It’s mentioned that Polo had behavioral issues and while that may be the case, it’s clear that neither Ema or Gastón were positive influences in the young boy’s life.



In a move that no one will disagree with, Ema embarks on the first steps of divorcing Gastón. No one watching would believe that these two should be together,
but one also wonders what bold actions Ema will take now that she’s out on her own. Often surrounded by her dance troupe posse, Ema is either out brandishing her flame thrower out in the open or engaging in impulsive sexual exploits. She proclaims she is all about freedom, but at what cost?

While on the outside, Ema may have this impulsive and irresponsible streak, but there are gears of manipulation turning internally. The married firefighter, Anibal (Santiago Cabrera), she meets early on, during the aftermath of one of her pyro antics, is inevitably caught in Ema’s web as is the divorce lawyer, Raquel (Paola Giannini), she employs, all in an effort to win Polo back like some kind of prize – although, it’s clear she has no idea what to do with the boy once she does get him back. To her, it’s just the principle of it all.

Just about everyone within Ema’s vicinity are initially pulled in by her alluring vortex, whether it’s her self-aware sexuality and her hyptnotizing Reggaeton dance moves, or simply her straightforward and beguiling one-on-one interaction with people, her attraction is undeniable. Yet, the more time we spend with her, there are indications that she is using all this to cover up insecurities and other issues, most often indulging in bold actions to hide it all.



One standout scene where this is apparent is the first appointment she has with her conservative lawyer. Ema admits she is broke and cannot afford her, but her blunt honesty and sexual confidence becomes an unexpected currency that Raquel accepts, finding the lawyer embracing or discovering a latent attraction. A similar encounter occurs during Ema’s conversation with the female principal of the school Polo attends, as she interviews for a teaching position to get close to the boy. It’s as if Ema emits pheromones that overcome those around her, easily winning them over to her side. These are fascinating scenes that are just as intoxicating and any of the infectious dance sequences in “Ema”.

Working with screenwriters Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno, Larraín portions out the story of “Ema” in moments rather than plot or a clear structure and it works because the eponymous character is so intriguing. Just as Ema grows increasingly free as the film enfolds, Gastón grows more bottled up and agitated, not just because his marriage is ending, but rather because he knows how Ema works and understandably fears what she is capable of. One wonders how the characters of Ema and Gastón were realized on the page, since both Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael Garcia Bernal appear to fully develop them throughout the film’s runtime. They are both great here, but Chilean actress Di Girólamo is definitely the standout here.

NOTE: IMDb notes state the actors were never given the entire script during production, so that answers some of my wonderment.

As powerful a character as Ema is, it would take someone with a strong presence to flesh her out and Di Girólamo has just that and then some. With her stark platinum blonde hair, her piercing brown eyes, and her enchanting body language (whether she is simply standing or engaging in dance), it’s difficult to take your eyes of Di Girólamo. Viewers will wonder what she will do next, even if her character’s actions can’t be encouraged or her behavior fully supported. It’s not hard to understand Ema, especially the dissolution of her toxic union to Gastón, but no doubt her character arc is similar to watching a car wreck at various speeds and movement…you just can’t look away. Her physical preparation for the role is obvious, but the emotional punch she brings to the role is just as impressive.



“Ema” is the first film Larraín has set in modern-day Chile and he and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (a frequent collaborator with the director) capture the environment in artful ways, shooting Valparaíso at varying angles and incorporating vibrant colors (whether they be part of the production design of a dance performance or an eye-catching sunset on the horizon). Some of the most memorable scenes of the film are the dance sequences – thanks to editor Sebastián Sepúlveda (“Jackie”) and composer Nicolas Jaar – which combine enthralling scenes of light and sound that accentuate the wild nature being unleashed by the dancers. Ultimately navigating an emotional war zone, “Ema” another career achievement for Larraín, offering a tremendous viewing experience for the open-minded that showcases a knockout lead performance.

Initially premiering at the Venice International Film Festival in August of 2019 and screening a month later at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Ema” finally is out in select theaters here in the States after COVID-19 delays, thanks to Music Box Films.


RATING: ***1/2



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