Film Review: Ema is an alluring, invigorating and breathtakingly hallucinogenic drama from Pablo Larrain

Ema tells the story of the titular lead (Mariana Di Girolamo), a young insatiable dancer who is on a quest to bring her family back together. She is currently estranged from her husband Gaston (a brilliant Gael Garcia Bernal), the director of the dance company she performs. The couple had encountered problems with their marriage due to the fact that Gaston was sterile, leading them to consider adopting a boy called Polo.

But it wasn’t the happily ever after ending they wanted. The story is told in Valparaiso, Chile; which provides solid background about Polo’s affinity for pyromania that starts a tragic event in the family that break the couple apart. Looking for a way to recover what she had lost, Ema sets out on a quest to bring back the family together again.

The synopsis for the film is extremely brief and trite on face value. However, when one considers that the film is written and directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, it certainly is not the case. Larrain is best known for films that are more reliant on character and feeling over story mechanics and plot. With acclaimed works like No, Neruda and Jackie, Larrain is able to provide ample immersion into the mindsets of his subjects through striking style and sharp filmmaking.

In the case of Ema, Larrain taps into the mind of a woman experiencing many inner conflicts, contradictions and desires. This makes the film a character study as well as a mood piece. The images of fire correlate to the character arc of Ema as she transgressively breaks all the rules that revolve around the perception of women, patriarchy and social norms. Whether it would be monogamous relationships, boundaries of sex – Ema romances her divorce lawyer Raquel (a divine Paola Giannini) as well as fireman Anibal (a burly Santiago Cabrera) who are both a couple themselves. Larrain portrays his characters unapologetically, warts and all, in both storytelling form and characterization.

The style of the film is also emblematic of the character of Ema herself, who is shown to be impulsive, enthusiastic, cynical and unabashedly human. Her pursuit for happiness is admirable but her actions are unruly and even hateful. It would take a talented performer to ground all of these emotions and states of mind in check and make them believable and convincing. Fortunately, Di Girolamo is a marvel as Ema. Whether she is dancing with childlike glee, enticing people with her irresistible allure or containing herself of her simmering rage, Di Girolamo portrays Ema honestly and never ventures into histrionics to bring her work forward.

The film does pile on the contrivances in the third act in which the plotlines resolve in ways that feel oddly convenient given the struggles of the characters. In addition, there is the eventual realization that there are no true, solid answers to its arguments it presents. But to be fair, the film never aims for a strong sense of verisimilitude but delves into flights of fancy that make the free-flowing storytelling easy to suspend belief, substantially thematic enough to provide ample food-for-thought though its social commentary and weighty enough to empathise with the characters, whom are played remarkably well by the talented supporting cast. The chemistry between Di Girolamo and Giannini in particular is sexy, magnetic and engagingly sweet.

Throw in many visually extravagant sights (courtesy of cinematographer Sergio Armstrong) and sounds (thanks to composer Nicolas Jaar) of prurience that straddle the line between titillation, jubilance and empowerment and you got yourself a winner. Ema is one of the best films of the year and another hit for writer/director Larrain.

A stirring melodrama, a compelling character study, a hallucinatory mood piece and a rollicking dance movie all at once; the film will have you hooked from the very first frame thanks to its melding of electrifying style, its force-of-nature human elements and a fantastic lead performance from Di Girolamo. Highly recommended.

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FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Ema is showing in cinemas now, courtesy of Palace Films.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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