Ema is one of the ferocious, stunning, wildly ambitious and sometimes messy films that I love. It has a distinct voice and carries a powerful message. It’s, literally and figuratively, an incendiary flamethrower of a film about the desire for human connection, love, and family. It’s also completely insane, seductive, and basks in the freedom of its characters. The film is the story of Ema, played fantastically in a breakout performance by Mariana Di Girolamo, and her husband Gaston, played by an emotional and intense Gael García Bernal. Ema is a dancer in a troupe, while Gaston is the choreographer. Gaston is infertile and in order to have a child, they decide to adopt. However, after the adoption, everything begins going awry and after an accident involving fire, they are forced to return and give back their new adopted son. The film follows their deteriorating relationships as it infiltrates every aspect of their lives from friendships, familial relationships, and their work. However, it also follows Ema’s devious, winding, and murky concoction of a plan to remain in the life of her child. The premise of the film seems simple enough, but one can not possibly be prepared for the wild and bizarre path the film actually takes.
There is a lot to admire about Ema and the first thing I want to mention is Pablo Larraín‘s remarkable direction, style, and voice. Larraín has made one of the most visually breathtaking films of the year: it seems that every scene has a background filled with vibrant, coruscating colors pulsating against the searing, bleak, and sometimes seductive drama playing out in the foreground. Each scene has a blast of freedom, color, and light, whether it’s the dancers gyrating to the bombastic beat of reggaeton or the more muted green hues of seduction and sex. Even in the moments of high drama, splashes of color still remain representing the passion of the characters as they proclaim and expound their beliefs about dance, expression, freedom, and the meaning of a family.
I think the main strength of Ema is the performances; the two main actors, Girolamo and Bernal, are complete knockouts in their roles and the entire supporting cast assists them perfectly. As the relationship between Ema and Gaston begins to crumble, the acting talents of the two really begin to shine. There are smaller, emotional moments in which they say the most vile and horrid expressions. They stab each other with verbal knives and with each word, they twist the blades further. They progress past pushing each other’s emotional buttons until they’re hammering away at each other to see who can hurt each other the worst. There are also louder, more explosive moments such as when Gaston disparages reggaeton and refers to it as “prison music” and is promptly criticized and reviled and lectured on how reggaeton represents freedom of expression, freedom of sexuality, and how sex can be danced. Mariani Di Girolamo radiates in the moments of seduction. In each of her seduction scenes, her facial expressions and body language sell the scene, her subtle movements and glances reveal the desire in her eye but also the deviousness of her plan. She expresses so much in those little glances and subtle movements, they reveal the multiple motives she harbors.
Ema is an interesting film, a film that carries a weighty message about the desire for a family and simultaneously the desire for freedom. It has a wonderful breakout performance by Mariana Di Giralamo and reminds us that Gael García Bernal is a great actor. It’s incredibly visually stunning and stimulating. Ema grabs you from the beginning and winds its way through its foggy plot until its end leaves you wondering what you just saw. It’s an incredibly ambitious film that doesn’t quite hit all of it’s beats but is still gripping and carries you through its insane plot to an intriguing closing shot.