Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Written by: Guillermo Calderón & Alejandro Moreno
Starring: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Paola Giannini, Santiago Cabrera
Being a passenger in life may be satisfactory for some but not someone like the titular character of this feature. Letting others guide and dictate her life led her to the place she has found herself and through the course of this narrative, she rips and burns down anything that gets in her way in such a luscious and hypnotizing way.
Having given away their adopted child, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) tries to find a way to get him back. With it, she must contend with her partner, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), who attempts to suppress her artistic movements and vision. Through her different interactions, it all comes together to show that she will not apologize in order to get what she wants.
The gorgeous visuals Ema has to offer appears simply through the poster as it shows the silhouette of the titular character and Gastón behind what appears to be a ball of fire. A fire that starts the film and only gets larger figuratively to display the unrelenting freeing nature of Ema. She had to give up her adopted child with Gastón because of the kid’s bad behavior and she resents her partner for everything. He could not provide her with a biological child, and his limited scope to her potential has held her back in many respects. This freeing and erotic journey Ema finds herself on demonstrates this burning passion that will not let up, which makes for an enthralling film.
Much of the language of the film can be found through the dances that define not only the careers of these characters, but also the way it dictates their emotions. Dancing is an integral part of their lives and it causes strife between Ema and Gastón, especially when she begins to dance reggaeton. Without explicitly stating, this film certainly takes place in Chile, which has its own valued form of music and dance, which differs from Puerto Rican-based music. Gastón speaks of the way the body movements lack any purity of the dance, but it becomes part of Ema’s liberation. The film has plenty of sequences when she dances with her other friends to reggaeton, which includes hip gyrations that appear to be sexual. A huge contrast to what was seen at the beginning of the feature.
Fixating on reggaeton says plenty about Ema. The style originated in one of the Caribbean islands and is relatively young compared to other more established dance iterations. Ema’s fascination with it leaves Gastón at a loss but she feels as free as ever. With it, her plan goes into fruition in using her body and sex appeal to achieve her goal. The placement of reggaeton also has an underlying statement about the place of Caribbean ideals placed upon a South American nation like Chile. It opens up a dialogue between the Latinx cultures of South America and the Caribbean, which the film slightly touches on. The level that it aggravates Gastón says plenty about him as a man and what he culturally sees as respectable music for his woman to dance to.
The soundtrack of Ema is out of control with track after track that amps up the intensity and exemplifies the journey of the titular character. Specifically, the track “REAL” follows many of the reggaeton dance sequences and shows how emboldened Ema and her friend group are with their sexuality and the movement of their bodies. Every other song serves the narrative in moments where a lack of dialogue exists. It creates the divide between Ema’s mission and everyone else around her. The music plays well with the cinematography and the visuals displayed in the dance sequences that appear to be music videos at times but seamlessly flow with the narrative theme of the film. Along with the dances, it matches with the thematic use of fire in the film, as it reinforces Ema’s lack of care for the feelings of others. She will burn down every institution built around her that keeps her away from her son, from monogamy, marriage, and just common decency.
Starring in the feature is Mariana Di Girolamo, who commanded the screen with every scene. Everything in the story visually and structurally flowed through her and she took the spotlight with a brute force. Not only through her great dance moves, but also the way she balances the eroticism of her character. Something not often depicted with female characters looking to reclaim a purpose of motherhood. My first exposure to this incredible actor and she paired incredibly well with Gael García Bernal. Their passionate battles pit two incredibly strong-willed individuals against each other to see whose composure will break first.
Ema electrifies, mystifies, and produces a profound piece of majestic art. The narrative flows in such a seductive way with how it lures you into this devious plan Ema has to break away from the constricting structures around her and conjure the life she wants for herself. Much of it doesn’t feel right or morally correct, but it makes the journey all the more thrilling as it dances its way to the jaw-dropping conclusion. A tremendous feature that allowed me to experience the incredible work by Mariana Di Girolamo and another example of the great artistry of Chilean director Pablo Larrain and Gael García Bernal. An embarrassment of riches in the talent department and it makes for a sensational and staggering viewing experience.