© Koch Films/Studiocanal

Chile 2020

Opening 22 Oct 2020

Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Writing credits: Guillermo Calderón, Pablo Larraín, Alejandro Moreno
Principal actors: Mariana Di Girólamo, Gael García Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Paola Giannini, Cristián Suárez

We first meet Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) talking to the social worker in charge of adoptions. Ema wants information about her formerly adopted son Polo, age 8. Slowly, we learn the details. Ema and her husband Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal), a choreographer for a dance troupe, could not have children. Therefore, they adopted Polo out of Colombia. (They live in Valparaísos, Chile.) Polo developed a difficult personality, setting a fire which injured Ema’s sister and putting a pet into the freezer. Ema returns Polo to the adoption agency where he finds a new family. Now she wants him back. The general public, friends and co-workers, show disapproval over Ema’s actions. She loses her job teaching children to dance. She still dances in Gastón’s group and, although they are still married, she has affairs, both hetero- and homosexual.

Pablo Larrain has directed successful films such as Post Mortem, Tony Manero, Jackie, and The Club which have played in various film festivals and achieved nominations for Oscar Awards. He has worked with actor Gael Garcia Bernal in Neruda (2016, and No (2012) to name a few. This is Mariana Di Girolamo’s first major role in film. I was looking forward to performances of Reggaeton Dance, much publicized in the press, but much more time was dedicated to sex with only small inserts of dancing. After 40 minutes we finally get a glimpse of Polo (Cristián Suàrez). One wonders whether he really did set someone on fire, considering that Ema’s favorite tool is a flamethrower. But, what better way to establish a new romance: set a fire, hang around until the fire department arrives, offer innocent information and you have a date with a fireman. Still, I found it difficult to follow the plot, asking myself, “Why am I watching this?” This doubt was not encouraged by the ominous music of Nicolas Loor. On the positive side, the actors are interesting, including Ema’s friends in her “girl gang,” who also dance and go out into the night. The photography of Valparaisos on the coast of Chile made up for some of my negative impressions. See it and tell me what you think. Ema played at 2019 film festivals in Venice and Toronto. (Becky Tan)

Second Opinion

Director Pablo Larraín and co-writers Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno invested neither substance in the convoluted storyline, nor character development in this long-drawn-out film. According to the director, “Ema is a paradigm: she’s a character of characters. Daughter, mother, sister, wife, lover and leader. [A] striking, beautiful sort of femininity.” This is how they chose to portray today’s young adults? Then lord help us all.

Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is quite a character. Compunction free, after un-adopting 12-year-old Polo (Cristián Suárez) she and older husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) insistently squabble about who was at fault. The experimental dance troupe suffers. Gastón throws her out; she stays with Sonia (Giannina Fruttero). Ema and the girl-gang assault Valparaiso’s dockside streets dancing reggaeton—a popular Latin America genre combining reggae and hip-hop, and fire-torching escapades. Ema manipulates people (Santiago Cabrera, Paola Giannini) and situations for self-satisfaction, amusement and self-seeking gratification. Still, she does manage to land on top as the others numbly, dumbly stare on.

Granted, the narrative has so many holes it is headache-inducing to follow and its characters’ one-dimensionality prompts indifference, but still, the cast should have tried harder. They only perk up when dancing, or during the many (mixed company) sex scenes. Editing (Sebastián Sepúlveda) and camera work (Sergio Armstrong) are satisfactory. What deserved the one star, though, are Nicolas Jaar’s alluring music, and the soundtrack. Explaining further, Larraín said, “She’s motivated by relentless individualism, as she clearly knows what she wants and is capable of seducing those around her in order to line up her destiny. [P]erhaps what moves and motivates her the most is love.” You think? Sorry, but Ema’s actions onscreen are a far cry from anything you have said, and a detestable representation of young adults—both sexes. (Marinell Haegelin)

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