“You have to burn in order to sow again,” a friend of Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) tells her. Ema is that fire, and she’s already burned down one life, and in her quest for renewal she’ll likely burn down a few more. We’re so accustomed to seeing two kinds of protagonists in movies—either heroes or anti-heroes, and particularly women, an “anti-hero” merely means, “She’s a violent bad-ass.” If she were truly unlikable, she couldn’t be the lead, or else she would have to have so much shading and nuance that somehow her actions appear redeemable. But with Ema, director Pablo Larraín isn’t necessarily trying to win us over to his title character’s perspective. He asks for our understanding, but never our sympathy, which makes for a fascinating, electrifying journey that’s more about how a fire doesn’t have morality. It burns because it has to, and perhaps at that end of the burn, there’s room for renewal. There are times when it’s hard to get a handle on what Larraín is doing here and his plotting falls a bit into soap-opera, but it holds together thanks to its vibrant visuals, raw sexuality, and Girólamo’s unforgettable performance.
Ema is a dancer married to her company’s director Gastón (Gael García Bernal), and the two are at each other’s throats ever since they made the seemingly unforgivable decision to return a child they adopted. The child, Polo, started a fire that disfigured Ema’s sister, but now his erstwhile parents blame each other for giving him back with Ema now determined to somehow be Polo’s mother again. But getting back into Polo’s life is a circuitous journey filled with a lot of collateral damage that never seems to cause Ema to flinch. Fueled by the support of her friends, Ema is an emotional inferno calmly tearing her way through others as she dances and fucks her way back to being a mother.
I will fully admit here that there are likely nuances in Ema that I probably missed. I’m not familiar with Chilean culture or the setting of Valparaíso, nor am I all that familiar with reggaeton, the music and dance style that Ema and her friends prefer, much to the consternation of Gastón, who practices a style away from the streets and looks to win over the artistic community. But even if you don’t know these nuances, you can always see how these conflicts (artistic style) mirror the larger ones (how we choose to live), and how Ema with her reggaeton dancing is part of a world Gastón doesn’t understand and, more importantly, one he doesn’t control.
The way Ema and Gastón go at each other can be absolutely brutal, and the trauma left in the wake of their decision leaves a perfect outline of their relationship. They each know how to perfectly twist the knife into each other, the way you can only when you know someone intimately and they’ve given you, through their love, the tools to harm them. There’s so much abuse and blame and pain between them that you know they must have loved each other at one point, but the decision to give back Polo has left a breach that can’t be repaired, and more importantly, one that Ema has no interest in repairing. While she looks to put back the pieces and find her way back to Polo, it’s clear that Gastón, a man who is 12 years Ema’s senior, is no longer part of that picture.
If you approach Ema from a moralistic standpoint, you’ll find that you’re not really “siding” with anyone, and that’s because the film isn’t interested in making an argument about right and wrong. It’s more about raw, messy, human emotions but using the lush colors and a literal napalm thrower to accentuate Ema’s internal fire. What makes Girólamo’s performance so masterful is that she doesn’t get big, emotional monologues. If anything, she’s left to remain enigmatic, with her motives and emotions bubbling right beneath the surface, and it makes for a beguiling performance. It helps that the camera loves Girólamo with her shock of platinum blonde hair and expressive eyes, but it’s the quiet of her performance accentuated by her stunning dance moves that let us into this character’s internal world, or at least as far as she’s willing to let us.
Where the film stumbles is in its plotting, which makes sense as this is more of a character-driven piece where the plot beats are almost inconsequential. But when they finally come together, Ema’s plan seems more like something out of a soap opera than something a real person would ever devise. And yet, if you go back to the notion that Ema is a fire (and the film seems to want you to absorb this as she dances in front of a blazing sun and literally goes around town setting things aflame), then perhaps its lack of cohesion makes sense. It is a plan of sorts, but one that leaves a lot of damage because for Ema, the only way forward is to burn it all down. Many may bristle at this kind of character if you’re conditioned to think that our protagonists must also be paragons of some sort. But Larraín understands that characters don’t have to be heroic; they only need to be compelling. And damn if Ema isn’t compelling.
Ema arrives in select theaters on August 13th and on Digital on September 14th.
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