(2019) Drama (Music Box) Mariana 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