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A World Aflame: Close-Up on Pablo Larraín’s "Ema"

The Chilean director's eighth feature explores the grief and the politics of dance with Mariana Di Girolamo as its fulminating lead.
Savina Petkova
Pablo Larraín's Ema is having a free virtual preview on MUBI in many countries on May 1, 2020. Following this preview, will be showing exclusively on MUBI in the United Kingdom, India, and other countries in May and June.
Illustration by Elda Broglio.
Halfway through Pablo Larraín’s Ema the camera frames a lamenting image of loss, picturing two adults holding onto each other in a small race car bed. No martial bed is in sight, nor is any child; this is a snapshot of grief. The man’s torso sinks into the woman’s lap, his hands wrapped around her hips. Resting her head on his back, the woman is, at the same time, supporting him and leaning on his shoulders. It is precisely this arresting shot composition that molds Ema into an unorthodox Pietà, using bodies to spell out the film’s tragic potential in a single frame. In this version, the son’s body is absent, but the mother’s grief has twisted both bodies to form an infinity symbol. The film unfurls its themes of motherhood, body politica, and sexuality with a febrile narrative drive, mapping out the steps of overcoming grievance as if it was an overwhelming but liberating dance.
Ema is Larraín’s eighth film and the third one shot in Valparaíso (together with his debut Fuga (2006) and Neruda (2016)—the Chilean coastal town that lends its labyrinthine streets and steep hills perfectly to a story of loss that is never straightforward. Dancer/schoolteacher Ema (newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo) and choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal, now one of the filmmaker’s regulars) are a married couple facing the irreparable consequences of giving their adopted child back after a year’s time, or what is legally termed a “failed adoption.” In his previous films, Larraín has shown a penchant for sinner characters and does not shy away from revealing their darker sides, whether they repent or not. That goes for the serial killer in Tony Manero (2008), the first lady in Jackie (2016), and the unhinged composer in Fuga in equal measures—or in this case, a couple making the morally dubious decision of returning an adopted child. Here, instead, the director’s humanism manifests in the way the film makes sure Ema and Gastón are fleshed out to the point of agony, fit to carry on the deed of castigation themselves.
“Ema” traditionally means “universal” and “mother,” in the respective Germanic and Hebrew tradition. This etymology resonates with her character in an incantatory way—paralleling the film’s title, her name evokes her into being. This is Ema’s story but she doesn’t seem to be the protagonist. Defined by a lack—her adopted son, Pollo (Cristián Suárez)—this woman is determined to reinstate herself as a mother, as a wife, as a free-spirited lover. She is a fire-breather. The film begins with Ema clutching onto a flamethrower after she has torched a traffic light, metaphorically rejecting any traditional rite of passage for herself. That fiery symbolism resurfaces again and again. Firstly, in the flamboyant use of color, drenching the images in magenta, neon blue, and red (flickering as a burning flame), then more abstractly in the ways Ema’s temper and desire are conveyed through performance and camerawork. Even tightly locked in static shot/reverse-shot compositions, the words and looks exchanged feel scorching. Without a doubt, she is the gravitational force of the film and its whole world, it seems, is composed in accordance with Di Girolamo’s raw performance. Ema is, more than anyone, aware of her own combustible potential, as the cinematography explores and expands her force-field. In this way, the flammable metaphors in Ema formulate a notion of intimacy made up by shared blisters, as every one of the characters finds themselves affected by her fire.
However, there is also hope for absolution for a  character made up of equal parts passion and remorse.  Even if Ema is portrayed as  more of an elemental figure, a Mother Nature in appearance, she remains painfully human. Her strong stature and eyes aflame make her worship-worthy, with an immense amount of underlying grief that fuels such power. One (equally puzzling) way to explain such a contradiction is to take all the flame-throwing and torching that she executes in the film (and it’s a lot), and turn it into water. To look at flames and see tears. In a way, Larraín’s characters are stern sufferers that seem stuck in moral purgatory, on the threshold of forgiveness. Ema herself is a martyr of universal pains—of women, artists, regretful humans, the flawed creatures we all are, but she, to the contrary, refuses to stick to purgatory. She’d rather purge the world, so it would be born anew, or in her words, “Burn, in order to sow again.” In this baptism by fire, all the flames stand in for the downpour of tears the world can no longer afford to hold back.
Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (in his sixth collaboration with the director) has swapped the signature trembling handheld approach for a more restrained look. However, his almost immobile pans and zooms, together with a swift, spiraling Steadicam for the dance sequences, chart the emotional cardiogram of the film. The camera refuses to stick to the dancers’ bodies like glue, following every curve and twirl, as one would expect. In fact, Armstrong keeps his distance and makes use of a narrow cinemascope ratio to frame mostly faces and hands, with lots of sky and air in central compositions, which gives off the feeling that the world belongs to them. Whirling and swaying from crammed neon-lit apartments to amethyst sunrise rooftop sequences, Ema delights the eye while peeking around Valparaíso’s hidden corners with a loving look, animated by a life-affirming dance culture, reggaeton.
Both music and dance, reggaeton negotiates the tensions between underground and popular. One of the performers in Ema describes it as “delicious but very dirty” and “an orgasm that can be danced.” However singular in their genre and aesthetic approach Larraín’s films may be, there is always an overt political message that sharpens the dialogue’s teeth. Ema stands out more as a stylized ode to personal grief in comparison to the Pinochet-era “trilogy” (Tony Manero [2008], Post Mortem [2010], and No [2012], nevertheless its politics are bone-deep. One sequence sees a scalding defense of the corporeal, or body politics, of reggaeton as a fiery source of female empowerment, spitting on the genre’s renowned machismo. Amidst calls for a revolution against traditional (namely, patriarchal) violence in the face of Gastón’s conservative choreography, explosive dance sequences contaminate the screen. Women’s bodies seem, at once, solid when arms punch the air, and fluid as shoulders and hips liquefy in a hypnotic rhythm. On a rooftop parking lot, a football field, crammed in a bus, or grinding over a bar top, manifestations of sexual and bodily liberation are finely tuned to a catchy beat, the lyrics infused with poetry and politics (“If my hunger is real, then my struggle is real”). In performing their socio-political stakes with their bodies, the women ascend and assume power. Ema equals matriarchy.
Like a dance, one sequence always seems to string out from the previous into the next, overlapping with sound or song. Scored by the American-Chilean Nicolas Jaar, Ema’s aural presence is multi-layered: a static noise or a steady electronic beat underlies a structure of grief, while its second dimension is often made up of slithering glissando, as of constant rebirth. The sound design itself is choreographed like a dance of life and mourning, opening a whole new horizon of feeling. And feel you will: comparisons with melodrama are apt here, but Ema has the powerhouse of a Greek tragedy (her grandeur is no less that of an Antigone). While such a comparison promises a cathartic outbreak, Ema is more like a cord of emotional firecrackers and their creative destruction. Pablo Larraín has made a film-phoenix.

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