Ema (2019)

Ema first published by VODzilla.co

Ema opens with the image of a traffic light. It is a state-erected sign for vehicles to stop and go, and therefore also a signifier of social order – except that this one, suspended over a street in Valparaíso at night, is on fire, as a woman watches her handiwork from below, with a flamethrower slung over her back. 

This is Ema (Marianna Di Girolama) – a talented reggaeton dancer, a free lover, a questionable mother, an amateur arsonist, and an agent of anarchic chaos leaving a scorched trail of damage in her wake – and Pablo Larraín’s film is a multi-faceted portrait of her struggles, her relationships and her rebellions. Or at least it seems like a portrait, until it suddenly becomes clear that from all these apparently disparate episodes a plot has been steadily emerging, almost entirely unnoticed until its full impact hits, like an explosion of destructive flame.

Like the red and green glow of the traffic lights in that opening scene, much of Ema is lit in a rich modernist neon – and if Ema is frequently in motion, whether on the dance floor or in the streets or in bed, DP Sergio Armstrong’s camera tracks her moves with a matching restlessness. Yet Ema stops as much as she goes. Although her marriage with the older, ‘weird’ choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal) seems a model of open progressiveness, in fact they have become stuck. For, having adopted and then abandoned the pre-adolescent Polo (Cristián Felipe Suárez) after he set fire to their house and burnt the face of Ema’s sister, the couple has been locked in an endless cycle of mutual recrimination, with Gastón repeatedly accusing Ema of being a ‘bad mother’, and Ema mocking Gastón for the infertility which stopped him giving her a child of their own. Their primal scene – the loss of Polo, with all the grief and guilt that it has brought – is one which they cannot stop painfully revisiting, and from which they are incapable of moving on 

Even after Ema has left Gastón’s troupe, initialised divorce proceedings against him, and embarked on separate affairs with the members of her dance group, with her divorce lawyer Raquel (Paola Giannini) and with the fireman Anibal (Santiago Cabrera) who put out one of the blazes that she started, she cannot help returning to her husband, and to thoughts of the young boy whom they had long since left behind. Yet even Ema’s fixation on family will in no way conform to the conservative model, as the young woman burns down any convention that might block her from doing what she wants.

Beautifully shot with hyperreal lighting (especially in the night scenes), cut together (by Sebastián Sepúlveda) like an impressionistic jigsaw puzzle, and unfolding piece by piece until the full picture of what is going on reveals itself, Ema is 2019’s other portrait of a lady on fire, as its artist heroine destroys everything to rebuild her own kind of order.  Meanwhile Di Girolama’s performance is one of seductive physicality and defiant determination. “When you know what I’m doing and why, you will be horrified,” she tells Anibal at their first tryst – and she is not wrong. If only, behind the flames of passion that she ignites in others, they were able to see the red light, and stop before it is too late to avoid the coming collision. 

Summary: Pablo Larraín’s modern Chilean portrait of a lady on fire burns with destructive chaos and new order 

© Anton Bitel