A young woman chases after Marcela (Catalina Saavedra), a social worker, asking about the welfare of Polo (Cristián Suárez), the young boy she calls her son. Marcela is having none of it, condemning her and her ‘shit husband’ for giving up on the boy they adopted when the going got rough. The reggaeton dancer ready to burn down everything to make things right again is “Ema.”
Laura's Review: B
Cowriter (with Guillermo Calderón, Alejandro Moreno)/director Pablo Larraín’s ("No," "Jackie") long delayed “Ema” finally makes an appearance well after his “Jackie” hit theaters and mere weeks before his Princess Diana movie “Spencer” arrives. While all three films are portraits of women, “Ema” is sure to stand apart from the other two. Those who prefer straightforward narratives are likely to be perplexed by “Ema,” a character study of a strong, fiery female which uses dance and jaw dropping visual compositions to advance its themes. Rest assured, though, that if Ema’s (Mariana Di Girolamo) taking on of multiple lovers of both sexes while still declaring love for her choreographer husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) seems strange, the method to her madness is revealed at film’s end.
The first shot we see in “Ema” is that of a traffic signal hanging over a street in Valparaiso, Chile in flames, a figure carrying a flame thrower on the street. Gastón questions his wife’s desire to donate a liter of blood to a burn victim who we will learn is her sister. Then we witness his dance troop performing in front of a projection of the sun, flares shooting from its surface.
Polo, the little boy who is the catalyst for this unusual drama, is seen eating at a café with two adults, Ema peering in. Gradually we will learn that the boy began acting out by setting fires, something he learned from his young adoptive mother. She’ll draw the attention of a firefighter, Aníbal (Santiago Cabrera), and somewhat perversely begins an affair with the married man. She’ll also embark on a sexual relationship with Raquel (Paola Giannini), the divorce lawyer she consults and offers to pay in trade. When she dances in a public courtyard with others from her husband’s troop, Gastón denounces the music and style of reggaeton. The rebellious Ema movies in with fellow dancer Sonia (Giannina Fruttero, HBO's 'Los Espookys') and sleeps with her too! When she is condemned by the school board where she teaches dance to youth for having given up Polo, Ema acquires a job in another one, whose female principal is more progressive. But we will soon learn everything she’s done is part of a master plan.
Director of Photography Sergio Armstrong and Production Designer Estefanía Larraín have created a stunning visual design, their use of color extraordinary. Choreographer José Vidal adds distinctive movement within their frames, the reggaeton dances led by Di Girolamo to Nicolas Jaar’s propulsive electro percussion score sensual and tribal. One scene where she dances in profile on the edge of the waterfront at dusk is a knockout, a shimmying vogue. Another celebrates its Valparaiso location with Ema headed down a serpentine street bordered by the curving lime green balconies adorning its apartment buildings.
If the marriage at its core makes little sense, Bernal’s older Gastón portrayed as a sadistic taskmaster, Ema herself, with her slicked back white blond mullet, emerges like a phoenix, fully formed and fiery by film’s end.
Robin's Review: B
A young dancer separates from her husband and must return the child they adopted but cannot care for. She descends into despair and seeks love to dull the guilt of her loss. But, she has a plan to make things right for “Ema.”
Director Pablo Larrain creates an enigmatic tale that works best on the levels of photography and production design, and the fact that the camera loves “Ema” star Mariana Di Girolamo, her androgynous good looks and graceful presence on screen.
Ema, though, is not really a likable character, except superficially, and her life decisions, thus far, have not been the best. Her marriage to 12-years older Gaston (Gael Bernal Garcia) ended with the disastrous adoption of an older child, Polo, who they had to give back. This gives you an impression that Ema is not really an altruistic person. She, definitely, is not.
Ema’s story and her personality keep the viewer, at least this one, held at arm’s length, never allowing me to know why she is the way she is. The actress/dancer does command the camera with her assured physical movement and grace – both of which are on ample display and are the calling card for the actress and director Larrain, who creates some visually stunning scenes.
The things I wondered about while I watched “Ema” is how in the world would any government agency even think about giving a child to Ema and Gaston. Neither is a poster child for good parenting and my hope, as I watched the story unfold, was that Polo would be saved from these people, The way it wraps up, though, turned me around to the story.
Music Box Films will release "Ema" in select theaters on 8/13 and on digital on 9/14/21. Click here for theatrical info.