Both scorching and stunning, the latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín follows a reggaeton dancer trying to move forward after a traumatic incident.
In the opening seconds of Ema, on a seemingly ordinary night in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso, a traffic light flickers with flames. The inky evening streets are silent and still otherwise, save for the film's eponymous protagonist (Mariana Di Girólamo, Much Ado About Nothing) — but Pablo Larraín (Jackie) well and truly starts his eighth feature as he intends to continue. Ema peers on from just a few paces away, her platinum blonde hair slicked behind a protective visor, a flamethrower strapped to her back and a nozzle in her hand. She's ready and eager to set her world alight. She's positively bursting to torch everything that's holding her back, in fact. Figuratively more than literally, she won't stop until she's watched the status quo burn. Anchoring a movie about trauma, power, family, restriction and freedom, she'll swiftly prove a blazing force, as well as an unforgettable central figure in one of Larraín's very best movies so far.
Before 2021 comes to an end, the Chilean filmmaker will have given the world Spencer, a new biopic about Princess Diana featuring Kristen Stewart as the royal figure. Also on his hit list this year: Lisey's Story, a Julianne Moore-starring TV adaptation of a Stephen King book that has been scripted for the screen by the author himself. But with the release of the phenomenal piece of cinema that is Ema, he's already gifting viewers something exceptional — and something that'll be hard to top. A new project by Larraín is always cause for excitement, and this drama about a reggaeton dancer's crumbling marriage, personal and professional curiosities, and determined crusade to become a mother rewards that enthusiasm spectacularly. That it stands out amongst the director's already impressive resume is no small feat given he's the filmmaker behind stirring political drama No, exacting religious investigation The Club and poetic biopic Neruda, too. For the first time in his career, Larraín peers at life in his homeland today, rather than in the past — and, in the smouldering interrogation that results, he may as well be holding the flamethrower himself.
Ema is filled with gleaming, dazzling and glowing sights like the image it first splashes onto the screen, with Larraín's now six-time cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (Tony Manero, Post Mortem) lensing an exquisite-looking picture. When its lead is first seen dancing for the company overseen by her choreographer partner Gastón (Gael García Bernal, Mozart in the Jungle), she stands before a giant blue fireball. It's a projection on a screen, but even just five minutes into the movie, it comes as no surprise when the eye-catching backdrop soon turns vibrant hues of red, orange and pink. Little else about Ema is that predictable, though, including its persistent penchant for glaring at its namesake as intently as it can. Faces and bodies fill the feature's frames, a comment that's true of most movies; however, in the probing patience it directs its protagonist's way, the intensity of its lingering shots that continually place her at the centre of the image and the kinetic fluidity of its dance sequences, this feature brilliantly, blisteringly and evocatively surveys and stares.
There's much to take in, all sparked by Ema's struggles after an attempt at motherhood goes awry. With Gastón, she adopted a child — an older boy, rather than a baby — but something other than domestic bliss eventuated. Following a devastating incident and the just-as-stressful decision to relinquish the child back to the state's custody, Ema is scrambling to cope. But, in a script by Larraín, Guillermo Calderón (The Club, Neruda) and Alejandro Moreno, this isn't a situation she's simply willing to accept. Social services won't give her another chance, or even let her see the boy she still calls her son. Things with Gastón have changed irrevocably, too. To combat both, to rally against the oppressive rules and expectations thrust her way, and to reclaim her sense of self emotionally and in her career, Ema makes a series of bold decisions that reshape and reignite her existence.
Unspooling its narrative like a mystery to be pieced together one enigmatic and melodramatic moment at a time, Ema is many things. Most potently, it's a portrait of a woman who is willing to make whatever move she needs to, both on the dance floor and in life in general, to rally against an unforgiving world, grasp her idea of true liberty and seize exactly what she wants. Impeccably cast as the unflinching dancer, and acting with internalised cool, control and command, the magnetic Di Girólamo exudes perseverance from her pores, as well as allure — two traits that couldn't be more crucial to Ema's plans. Whether she's showing off her best reggaeton moves against a vivid backdrop, staring pensively straight at the camera or being soaked in neon light, the film's star is hypnotic. Like the brightest of flames, she's impossible to look away from. One of Larraín's regular players, Bernal also leaves an imprint, perfecting a thorny role that ties into the film's interrogation of Chile's class and cultural divides. That said, so much of his performance involves responding to Di Girólamo that everything about Gastón would be completely different without her presence.
Larraín has always had a knack for casting (see: each and every one of his movies listed above). His skill as both a visual- and emotion-driven filmmaker shines here as well, and that too isn't new. The experience of watching Ema almost feels like dancing through it alongside its titular figure, because that's how mesmerising each stunning image proves, especially when paired with an intoxicating soundtrack that sets the beat and tone all at once. Nothing about this movie fades quickly; not its ideas, inimitable protagonist, or rousing exploration of trauma, shock and their impact. Little feels like anything else in Larraín's filmography, and yet it's always still evident that he's behind the camera. Add it alongside Gaspar Noé's Climax in the list of dynamic dance movies that romp, swirl and gyrate to their own electrifying rhythm. That comparison can't paint the full picture, though, because a cinematic light this strong and scalding sparks in nobody's ashes.