Ema, played by Mariana Di Girólamo, dances to hard-hitting reggaeton, either alone or with her troupe of fellow Chilean dancers. They dance on top of rooftops, with the sprawling Chilean city seen in the background, scaling up and down a mountainside. They dance inside city buses, by the seaside and in bars. No area seems off limits. To top it off, intercut between the dancing, Ema fires a flamethrower.
When they are not dancing, Ema tells the characters’ story in a similarly stylized and sensual manner. The colors of the characters’ clothing and surroundings are saturated and diverse. The dialogue has its own particular rhythm and cadence. Ema is not a musical, despite the significant amount of runtime dedicated purely to dance. Think instead of a music video, with stylistic edits, and scenic locations.
We follow Ema, the titular character, who is a teacher, dancer, and married to her troupe leader, Gastón, played by Gael García Bernal. We are first introduced to her when she is dealing with the consequences of an initially vague but serious accident involving her sister that forced her and Gastón to return their adopted son to child services, an act that has severely affected their reputation in the community. As a result, Ema leaves her job as a teacher, and we journey with her as she attempts to get their child back.
It’s a tumultuous journey—at every moment threatening to tear Ema and Gastón's marriage apart. They look straight into the camera while arguing with each other. Both speak candidly and bluntly, never holding back any thoughts as to who they believe is at fault in their marriage. They saying the cruelest thing they can think of that they know will cause the most pain. In some scenes, they will argue, and on the turn of a dime, will change their moods, apologize and profess their love.
The couple also argues about dance and music. Gastón asserts that the more contemporary, electronic soundtracks that we see the dance company perform to are the superior form of music for dancing. We hear this kind of music from the very opening of the film, where the dance company, huddled in a large crowd, is dressed in white in a dark room in front of a large screen that displays a massive star.
Ema on the other hand prefers reggaeton, the music accompanying most of the dances we see in the film, a genre of music originally from Puerto Rico that fuses elements of hip-hop, Caribbean and Latin music that is popular throughout South and Central America. Gastón decries reggaeton as not intellectually stimulating. Ema argues that is the point. Like this writer, you may find yourself agreeing with her. The reggaeton that fills the soundtrack is infectious, with catchy rhythms meant for physical movement that we find ourselves tapping our feet and bobbing our heads along to.
Ema Is A Vehicle For Dance and Drama
Throughout the film, we mainly feel stress and tension, as the characters scheme, insult each other or manipulate each other's emotions, and it’s all punctuated by the compelling dance sequences. The film is structured less like a traditional story and instead mostly presents a sequence of emotionally layered scenes, and so Ema might strike some as vignette-like.
Ema is a good choice for those interested in dance and drama. Those that prefer more tightly structured plots, or who just aren’t fans of reggaeton should probably avoid this film.
Mariana Di Girólamo
Gael García Bernal
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Written by Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno
Visit the EMA film site to find out where you can stream the film online.
Images courtesy of Bright Iris Film Co.
About the Author: Ricardo Rico
Ricardo thinks it's unfortunate that there’s not enough time in the day or in a lifetime to see all the great works of art that have been made, are being made, and will be made. Luckily, this does mean that there’s always a new and surprising piece of art to be found wherever you look. That’s why he’s constantly adding new films, albums, books, and occasionally, video games to his list of pieces to check out. He likes to create just as much, whether it's with a camera, laptop or guitar, and is always working on shooting another film or writing another screenplay or song. This keeps his mind sharp, while soccer, weightlifting and walks with his dog give him the endurance to keep searching for the next great work he’s yet to discover.