Ema


Meet Ema.

(2019) Drama (Music BoxMariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Josefina Fiebelkorn, Giannina Fruttero, Paola Giannini, Antonia Giesen, Susana Hidalgo, Paula Hofmann, Mariana Loyola, Paula Luchsinger, Eduardo Paxeco, Cristián Suárez, Catalina Saaedra. Directed by Pablo Larrain

In this post-#MeToo world, I think it’s safe to say that the concept of femininity is changing. We are seeing less and less of the traditional female attributes of acceptance and submission, as a society that has largely been misogynistic has forced women to stand for themselves and become more aggressive.

Ema (Di Girolamo) is the perfect example of that. A reggaeton dancer in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, she is enigmatic, her on-again, off-again relationship with her husband Gaston (Bernal) who is also her dance group’s choreographer almost defiantly off-again at the moment. They are the parents of an adopted pre-teen boy named Polo (Suárez) who after a disastrous time in their home has been returned to the adoption agency, after he set a fire in their home that badly burned her sister’s face. The dead cat in the freezer is also attributed to Polo.

Her adopted son’s penchant for burning things might come from Ema, who prowls the streets of Valparaiso at night with a gang of girls from her troupe, setting cars, traffic signals and other things on fire. Ema sees herself as above conventional morality – assuming she recognizes any sort of morality at all – and has hatched onto a plan to get her son back, even after she herself had decided to return him. The plan, half-baked as it is, includes getting to know Polo’s new adoptive parents and seducing the both of them. Ema uses her body as a means of getting what she wants. I guess that passes for empowerment.

Larrain, one of Chile’s premiere directors with such movies as Neruda, No and Jackie under his belt, goes the experimental avant garde route here and your enjoyment of this will depend very much on your tolerance of such things. There really isn’t a story as such here; this is more of a character study through a series of incidents.

Part of the issue lies with Ema herself, and herein lies my dilemma as a reviewer. Di Girolamo delivers an outstanding performance, ice-blue, red-hot and alternately vulnerable and distant. She can be vicious, generally lacking any sort of impulse control, and has that arrogant artist thing down pat. We are riveted by her, enthralled by her abject freedom but then repelled by her utter disregard for nearly everybody else. If Polo is, as he is made out to be, a psychopath, Ema is absolutely self-absorbed to the point of psychosis. I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a commentary on the current generation or not.

Bernal, one of Latin America’s most gifted actors, is largely wasted here, given little to do other than react to whatever is going on with Ema, but after all, the name of the film is NOT Gaston. He does the best he can, as does Cabrera as Polo’s new adoptive father.

The visuals are striking, as are the dance sequences which look competitive to what you would find in New York. Those who are more into the visual side of film than anything else will enjoy this. Those who are looking for a story…not so much. This is a movie to be admired, but not loved.

REASONS TO SEE: Ema is a complicated character. Stylized and at times visually stunning.
REASONS TO AVOID: I admire the movie more than I like it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made it’s debut at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Her Smell
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Sleepwalkers

Tony Manero


Tony Manero

Tony Manero or Al Pacino?

(Lorber) Alfredo Castro, Paolo Lattus, Hector Morales, Amparo Noguera, Elsa Poblete. Directed by Pablo Larrain

We tend to take our freedoms for granted. In other cultures, those freedoms are non-existent; even a suggestion of non-conformity can lead to arrest or worse. In Chile under the dictator Agustin Pinochet the rule was by an iron fist without the benefit of a velvet glove.

Raul Peralta (Castro) lives in a working class neighborhood in Santiago and he dreams of fame and fortune. He is fascinated by Saturday Night Fever, then a current hit movie, and identifies with the central character, Tony Manero who in turn dreams that his skills as a dancer will elevate him from his working class neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Raul shows up for a television show that awards prizes to the best impersonator, but on the wrong day. He stands in line with a group of hangdog Chuck Norris wannabes, only to be told that the Tony Manero show is the following week.

Despondent, he goes to a Santiago cinema to lose himself in the lights and the glamour of Saturday Night Fever yet again. At home, he sees an old lady carrying her groceries home set upon by a group of young hoodlums. He helps her pick up her groceries and escorts her back to her own apartment where he suddenly and viciously beats her to death.

Raul, his girlfriend Cony (Noguera), his friend Goyo (Morales) and Cony’s young daughter Pauli (Lattus) make up a troupe that aspire to perform in the rundown nightclub run by Wilma (Poblete) who is also Raul’s landlady. Raul is obviously the alpha male in this ragtag troupe; he sees himself as a virile, attractive and masculine. In reality, he is impotent, unable to perform either with Cony or, in a riveting but strange scene, with Pauli. His focus is on his fantasy; he goes so far as to replace the dance floor at the bar with a glass brick one along the lines of the one seen in the movie.

The group is already starting to implode as petty jealousies and ideological differences lead to one of the group members informing on the others. Raul leaves them to fend for themselves. Dodging police patrols, he finally makes it to the competition. Who will be the winner?

Our glimpses into Pinochet’s Chile have been very rare, and Larrain gives us a good look without it being overwhelming. He prefers to leave Pinochet in the background, instead concentrating on the story set there and that’s a wise move. Larrain has said that the movie is an allegory for life under Pinochet in Chile and to a certain extent, it is.

What I find fascinating is the buy-in to the American fantasies that have been imported into Chile. The people of Santiago find escape in any way they can; their lives are so repressive that they find the need to take on other lives, other personalities in order to get past the feelings of helplessness they must have constantly.

Raul’s sexual impotence is also a metaphor for this, the impotence of the Chilean people. They are ruled by guns and fear and can’t see a way out of it. This is a strong, prideful people so it must have been extra galling to have been so powerless.

Castro, a renowned Chilean stage actor and director, looks a little like Al Pacino but gives an outstanding performance as the amoral Raul. His only passion is for the role he so desperately longs to inhabit; when that is threatened, he reacts viciously. He defecates on his friend Goyo’s suit because he feels threatened that he might beat him in the television competition.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch and in some ways, Castro does too good a job in making the unlikable Raul truly repugnant. It gets to the point where you want him to get caught for his crimes which would of course mean the movie would come to an end but the sad truth is that a penny ante sociopath could easily fly under the radar in a place where brutal repression was so in vogue. That’s the most horrific part of the movie by far.

WHY RENT THIS: A chilling look into a sociopath in Pinochet-era Chile. Castro gives a riveting performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The lead character may well be too unsympathetic to get behind.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of nudity and sex, as well as extreme violence. Not for children in any way, shape or form.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Chile’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It didn’t win the nomination.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Film Geek