“Ema” opens with a shot that lingers on a city street at night. The lights from the buildings and street lamps frame what turns an otherwise normal scene extraordinary: a burning traffic light. Fire imagery is repeated throughout the remainder of director Pablo Larraín’s film, both visually and within the story. Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) adopted a boy named Polo (Cristián Suárez) after discovering that Gastón is sterile, but Polo’s volatile behavior manifests itself in a violent incident that prompts his parents to give him up. The guilt over the loss of their son derails the couple’s relationship and prompts Ema to embark on a journey of self-discovery.
Fire is also a word that can be used to describe Ema herself. Ema is destructive, sensual, unpredictable, and completely out of place in any sort of status quo scenario. With her slick blonde hair and piercing gaze, like a flame, she is impossible to look away from. Her electrifying personality is brought to life thanks to relative newcomer Girolamo, who possesses an innate intensity that makes the fact that so many characters seem immediately drawn into Emma’s orbit believable. Bernal matches her energy in their scenes together; in an early scene in which the couple are arguing, the verbal blows they hurl at each other are wince-inducing.
Ema and Gastón have a relationship that feels like it’s going to combust at any second, but at the same time, we get the sense that they are well-matched. A large part of this is due to the fact that they are both creative individuals. Ema is a reggaeton dancer in an experimental dance troupe for which Gastón is a choreographer, and even after they split personally, they still work together professionally. Reggaeton is a large part of “Ema,” and Larraín injects many dance breaks set to the pounding, energetic music throughout the film. The first one is especially gorgeously shot, set in a studio surrounding by otherworldly sets and lighting, but the dances later in the film, often taking place out on the Chilean streets, are riveting in how grounded and natural they feel. Dancing allows Ema to express herself, to feel free, and she is a master of the arm form.
“Ema” is not a straightforward narrative, which certain viewers may find frustrating. Timelines are shuffled and blurred as Ema’s behavior becomes increasingly explosive, whether she is embarking on a series of affairs or walking around with a flame thrower strapped to her back. But Larraín leaves just enough room for viewers to bring their own experiences and interpretations to this film and this character, who is far from likable but utterly engrossing. Above all else, Ema is highly motivated and what she wants is clear. Larraín and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong also have crafted a series of indelible images for this film, using in particular a lot of closeups of the actors staring straight into the camera, keeping the narrative character-focused and, in Ema’s case in particular, serving to lure the audience in to their world. “Ema” may be a puzzle to unravel, but this erotically-charged, wild, and free-spirited musical film is an experience that’s best to just let it wash over you.
“Ema” is now playing in select theaters and will be available to watch on demand on September 14. Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy Music Box Films.