Ema, a film by Chilean director Pablo Larrain, is the story of an unhappy family set to the pulsing, percussive beat of reggaeton music and images of fire. But its color and sound and the fiery performance of the title character take it far beyond Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This unhappy family starts with Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo, Constitution, “Perdona Nuestros Pecados”), married to Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal) a fellow dancer and choreographer 12 years her senior. Because of his infertility (she calls him “a human condom” and “an infertile pig”), they adopted a Colombian boy named Polo when he was about 7. But Polo caused some unfortunate events and Ema and Gastón decided to return him, like an unwanted Christmas present. (Ema says to Gastón, “People look at us in public as if we suffocated a dog with a plastic bag.”) Ema feels pangs of guilt and love for Polo but that remorse gets lost in the frenetic dancing, partying and lovemaking life she leads in her search for liberation with partners of both sexes.
I have trouble envisioning Garcia Bernal, that talented and handsome Mexican actor, as the older man because I remember him so well from exciting youthful roles in Bad Education, The Motorcycle Diaries, Amores perros, Y tu mamá también and the 2012 Larrain film, No, about a plebiscite in Pinochet-era Chile. He does look older and a bit worn here, perhaps from life with the tempestuous Ema. (The scene where Ema meets with a divorce lawyer belongs in a law school business class.)
The scenes in Ema flow quickly and switch cast and locale dizzily, so that you may be puzzled about who is with whom where and why at times. But the pieces come together fairly well at the end.
Besides dancing and choreography, Ema has jobs teaching grade school kids to dance reggaeton style (lots of bouncing, jumping, hip, knee and shoulder moves), a good workout for 10-year-olds. Late in the film, she finds Polo in one of these classes, which brings about the perverse family-focused ending.
The film is essential viewing for its gorgeous cinematography (by Sergio Armstrong) and flaming colors, especially the reggaeton dance scenes, with a large troupe of dancers performing in silhouette against a blazing red globe, which sometimes flares into blue, then purple and orange. The strong use of red in the film’s color palette is an ode to fire, an element dear to Ema, who occasionally fuels a flamethrower and torches things in public places. It’s no wonder that Polo becomes a pyromaniac (yes, that’s a bit of a spoiler). Ema herself is stunning, with vanilla ice hair combed back off her brow, expressive face and fluid dancer’s body.
The reggaeton music is the aural focal point of the film with a score by Nicolas Jaar, mixed with heavy use of electronic keyboards and drum machines. Larrain said in an interview that reggaeton “has a rhythm that is everywhere, like any strong element that comes from pop culture. You’re there and you’re forced to live with it. It’s a cultural exercise that has its own ethical and aesthetic existence.“ Reggaeton originated in Puerto Rico in the 1990s, evolving from dancehall, reggae and Caribbean music and influenced by American hip-hop with explicit sexual and violent lyrics. The 2017 international hit song “Despacito” is an example.
Ema was screened in 2020 as part of the Chicago Latino Film Festival. It opens in theaters Friday, August 13.
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