MA 15+, 107 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is a remarkable new film from Chile. Difficult and strange and by turns beautiful and haunting, as well as angry and jarring. Like it or not, Ema is a consuming experience, something way beyond edgy if that is what comes to mind.

To crackling flames on the soundtrack, it opens on a set of traffic lights ablaze. In what could be twilight or dawn, the camera pulls back to reveal the perpetrator of the act of arson. It’s a young woman in a welder’s mask, toting a flame-thrower. When she throws off her headwear, she displays a slicked-back shock of bleached blonde hair.

On the dance floor, a free spirit of interpretative dance, while out-and-about an urban saboteur

Meet Ema, who is played by a terrific newcomer to the big screen, Mariana Di Girolamo. On the dance floor, she is a free spirit of interpretative reggaeton dance moves. Out and about, she is something of a saboteur.

This enigmatic introduction segues into the rehearsals and performances by the dance troupe to which Ema belongs. She and the other dancers move like automatons in front of an image of a large, burning sphere. Our planet. Though much is open to interpretation in this film, there is a recurrent theme about the generations to come who will be impacted by climate change.

The blistering beginning is followed by Ema’s visit to a government department for news of her adoptive son. A departmental official tells her in very harsh terms what lousy parents she and her husband have been, and that she should give up on maternal aspirations and stick to her dancing.

There isn’t any chance of retrieving her son, a 4th grader who has developed serious pyromaniac issues.

Back at their drab apartment, the arguments of recrimination continue between Ema and her husband, a celebrated choreographer. It is a surprise to see Gael Garcia Bernal in the role of Gaston, transformed by a short back-and-sides.

Such a different look, and such a different political position from the eager young Che Guevara he played, who travelled through Latin America in The Motorcycle Diaries.

With their son Polo (Cristian Suarez), recently returned to child protection services, Ema and Gaston argue constantly about who is to blame for their failure as parents. The flat, static camerawork underlines their personal crisis and relationship impasse.

For Gaston, Ema represents a generation with poor prospects for parenthood and other life responsibilities. As someone 12 years Ema’s senior, Gaston is intensely critical of the younger generation that Ema represents. She believes that her dancing is all about freedom from social constraint.

The conflict between them translates to the rest of her female cohort in the dance troupe, and Gaston finds himself on the outer.  While this develops, Ema’s inchoate fury and destructive grievances take form in restless hyper-energy group performances. It makes for some spectacular dance scenes.

Ema leaves Gaston, though not entirely, and embarks on an odyssey of sexual experiences with female and male partners, including handsome barman, Anibal (Santiago Cabrera). Though Ema’s love life may seem desperately tangled, she has a strategy for retrieving Polo.

Director Pablo Larrain, who co-wrote his screenplay with Guillermo Calderon and Alejandro Moreno, has set Ema in Valparaiso, Chile. The mix of establishment and commercial icons scattered throughout the beautiful port city look particularly vulnerable to Ema’s flame-throwing campaigns.

Visually arresting and powerfully iconoclastic, the filmmaker has great flair

Even rubbish bins and playground equipment are set on fire. Signs of social order are a favourite target for this iconoclast, Ema the urban saboteur.

It’s all visually arresting and powerfully iconoclastic stuff, for which Larrain has great flair. But he has trouble holding the unwieldy bits of his film together.

Other films of his, such as Neruda, No and Jackie, in which Natalie Portman had the role of the Kennedy-era historical figure and fashion icon, have been consistently interesting. Offering new perspectives on historical figures and events. For Larrain, who grew up in Pinochet’s Chile, politics are never far from the surface.

The most impressive aspect of Ema is the central performance. Any performer who can push the actor Gael Garcia Bernal aside has great screen presence, and Mariana Di Girolamo certainly has.

Writer-director Larrain allowed his lead character free reign, of course, but then Di Girolamo has certainly risen to it. She makes a strong impression, despite the difficulties with this film. Only an actor like Di Girolamo could carry the day.

First published in the Canberra Times on 16 May 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes