Dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her choreographer husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal) reach a crossroads in their marriage after their adoption of Polo (Cristian Suarez), a troubled young boy, goes horribly wrong. Deciding to put the boy back into foster care, the decision deepens the cracks that are already starting to appear in their marriage, and Ema turns to dancing reggaeton, something that Gaston doesn’t approve of.
Ema is an unusual film but anyone who has seen any of Pablo Larrain’s previous work won’t be surprised by that. A director that is continually pushing the boundaries in terms of how stories are told, he’s one that has always been very divisive. With Ema, written by Guillermo Calderon and Alejandro Moreno, Larrain explores what happens when a couple gets what they think they wanted, only for it to blow up in their face.
In this case Ema and Gaston were desperate for a child but with Gaston experiencing infertility issues they decided to adopt one. Despite the child showing signs of being deeply troubled, Ema formed an inappropriately close bond with him that resulted in him burning down a house that almost killed her sister. The escalation in Polo’s behaviour leads the couple to put him back into the system but once he’s out of their lives again, they start to throw blame back and forth, which gets nasty and personal very quickly.
While they are dealing with their personal issues, Ema starts to spend more and more time with a female dance group whom she dances reggaeton with. Finding the movement freeing, Ema is quickly enveloped in her new passion as it takes her away from Gaston’s control. The more Gaston disapproves, the more Ema’s actions begin to escalate and she uses her sex appeal to encourage lawyer Raquel (Paola Giannini) to help her start divorce proceedings and lures the hunky Anibal (Santiago Cabrera) into bed to give her what Gaston isn’t able to.
Larrain very clearly paints Ema as a rebel. She’s a bleached blonde-haired wild card that walks the streets with a flamethrower and isn’t afraid to use her body – whether it be for dance or sex – to get what she wants. The performance from Mariana Di Girolamo is riveting. She plays Ema with an edge that leaves you wondering what she’s going to do next and you’re never 100% sure if you trust the narrative that she spins. Di Girolamo is matched by Gael Garcia Bernal who continues to take on unusual and challenging roles, as he’s done throughout his career. His Gaston is needy, controlling and surprisingly unengaged at the times he should be most present.
Visually the film is stunning. The streets of Valparaiso in Chile provide a gorgeous backdrop and the locations really add to the whole atmosphere of the film. The lighting should also be mentioned as many scenes are lit with vibrant colours, making it look very stylish and stylised. Where perhaps the film will lose the casual film-goer is through it’s sometimes self-indulgent dialogue that is meandering more than it needs to.
Ema is unlike anything you will have seen before. For those who like art house cinema, it will be a rush for the senses but if you like your cinema more linear, you’ll likely walk away cold. There is a lack of emotional engagement with the characters but the performances and direction make up for that. I promise you though, if you stick with the film to the end credits, you won’t see what’s coming and when it does, you’ll have to pick your jaw up off the floor. Ema is challenging, difficult, unpredictable, frustrating and changeable – much like Polo, the child that is the catalyst for the explosion of Ema and Gaston’s marriage.
Cast: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Paola Giannini Director: Pablo Larrain Writers: Guillermo Calderon, Alejandro Moreno Certificate: 15 Duration: 107 mins Released by: MUBI Release date: 2nd May 2020