Photo: New Zealand Film Festival
by Steven Warner Film

Ema | Pablo Larrain

September 9, 2019

Much like its titular character, Pablo Larain‘s Ema is a bit of an enigma: a seemingly complex character study that offers little in the way of understanding the woman at its center. To say that this has been done by design is obvious, but also makes any criticism lobbed against it moot and ultimately exasperating. Mariana Di Girolamo stars as Ema, a professional dancer who, as the film opens, is dealing with the fallout of giving up the young boy she had adopted with her choreographer husband (Gael Garcia Bernal) after a suspicious accident. What starts as a portrait of toxic love and damaged souls soon takes on the air of something more sinister, as Ema schemes to get back her son, at any cost. But Larain isn’t out simply to make a standard domestic thriller; his film’s genre trappings are used solely to highlight the contradictory nature of his lead character, a woman who is both emotionally-fueled and borderline sociopathic, who is highly-sexualized yet a deeply committed caregiver — the mother and the whore.

Much of Ema plays like a feminist rallying cry, with a heroine who straps a flamethrower to her back and sets fire to the streets of Chile in the name of love and identity. But the longer things go on, the more difficult it becomes to discern if even Larain knows what to make of his protagonist. With 2016 biopic Jackie, Larrain was able to reveal the complex inner life of Jackie O’Nassis, a woman seemingly defined by surfaces. Here, the filmmaker becomes too enamored with those surfaces, which prove to be his film’s most memorable aspects: the striking imagery (a flaming stoplight framed by breaking dawn, a dance performance set against a backdrop of intergalactic awe), the throbbing score by the great Nicolas Jaar, and a passionate and profoundly funny monologue delivered by Bernal on the evils of the Reggaeton scene. Plus, of course, the committed performance by Di Girolamo. But Ema, ultimately, is spectacle posing as profundity.

Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 2.
Published as part of Nightstream 2020 — Dispatch 1.