Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This film plays at the Grand Illusion starting Sep. 3.
Ema is constructed like a screwball comedy, but it is not funny. It has extensive dance sequences, but it is not a musical. It has flights of wild fancy, but also stops for scenes where two people sit and tear each other apart, as though escapees from an Ingmar Bergman film. I don’t understand this movie, but I like it.
Another way of saying this is that the Chilean director Pablo Larrain (who scripted the film with Guillermo Calderon and Alejandro Moreno) continues to be indifferent to the pressures of 21st century filmmaking, where most things in movies need to be explained, or at least likable. I have been intrigued, and frequently alarmed, by Larrain’s movies (which include Jackie and the upcoming Spencer) since seeing Tony Manero back in 2009, a movie so grim it cannot even pause to consider the comic possibilities of a man who beats a projectionist to death for screening Grease. Like Ema, Tony Manero is about dance and obsessiveness, although the new movie’s expansive, eye-popping approach could not be more different from the earlier film’s dour Pinochet-era palette.
In Ema, the title character, played by Mariana Di Girolamo, is a dancer; she is also married to the older choreographer and leader of her troupe, Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal). Something terrible has happened as the film opens, and it takes a few minutes to infer that the couple’s adopted son, a little boy from Colombia named Polo, has acted out once too often and caused real injury, by fire. The event, and Polo’s subsequent removal from their home, has damaged the marriage, disfigured Ema’s sister, and earned Ema the wrath of a fiery social worker (Catalina Saavedra, the poker-faced title character in Sebastian Silva’s The Maid).
Putting this together is absorbing, and so are the scenes between Ema and Gaston, who face off with horrifying bluntness. (Garcia Bernal is scrupulous about filling out the authenticity of a distinctly supporting role.) Other aspects of these early reels are important, too—the way dance sequences suggest that what’s onscreen is something stylized and perhaps not always reality-based, for instance. Regularly, we witness scenes that are baffling: Does Ema really have a flamethrower at hand, the better to light up stray cars?
Di Girolamo’s performance does not help us decide whether what we are watching is partly Ema’s artistic imagination at work. Her hair slicked back in a severe platinum blond shock, her manner dazed, her sexual range apparently boundary-less, Ema is presented as a near-sociopathic mystery. In an interview for a job as a movement instructor at a grade school, Ema is asked what she likes to teach, and she replies, “Freedom.” The film itself espouses that kind of freedom. Ema’s grief about the loss of Polo appears real, but still—the flamethrower? Entirely symbolic, or actually criminal?
I don’t know the answer, but I can say that it was refreshing to spend time with a movie that feels like it came from another era, one in which puzzling the audience was an acceptable gambit for moviemaking. There’s one other aspect of Ema that tips it into the check-it-out column: This is a gorgeous symphony of a city. Valparaiso, in this case, the hilly harbor city, which is striking in its own right but even more so when Larrain is shining green and yellow lights at night and staging moody ensemble dances in empty lots, or finding cool apartments and cafes in which to play key scenes. This is all the more impressive because the movie doesn’t make a travelogue out of it—you’re distracted, instead, by the young woman with a flamethrower in the foreground.
September 3, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.