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The latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain sees him reunite with Gael Garcia Bernal and introduce the world to Mariana Di Girolamo in an off-beat family drama that’s electric to the touch. Larrain has made a career out of films that combine a docu-drama aesthetic with dashes of the abstract, as the likes of No and Jackie demonstrate. He’s someone who likes lifting the lid on the people in his frame, often letting all their colours spill out, with shades that are equal parts beautiful and ugly. Never has that been more true than in his latest film Ema, an intoxicating look into the extreme actions of one woman looking to piece her family back together. 

Set in the port city of Valparaíso, the film follows reggaeton dancer Ema (Mariana Di Gioralmo) who has a tempestuous marriage with her choreographer, Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal). When a tragic incident sees their adopted son taken away from them, Ema sets out on a path of fiery liberation to repair her family by any means necessary. 

Ema is a striking piece from Larrain. It is super charged on every level, with every scene feeling like a firework that’s frantically shifting in place as if on the cusp of exploding. It’s a visceral film with many searing images that emerge from its eclectic port city. From striking dance sequences, to moments revelling in the streets and apartments of the city of Valparaiso, Larrain makes great use of his vibrant location and the larger than life personalities that it plays home to. The impression it gives is of a city that is always ready to dance, drink and fuck, and it’s an intoxicating place to be. 

The spirit of Valparaiso is very much embodied in Ema. She’s someone very independently minded, whose looks and spirited personality prove to be irresistible to both men and women, a fact that Ema herself is very aware of and uses to her advantage. In order to rebuild some semblance of a family, Ema goes to some extreme places when it comes to manipulating the married couple (played by Santiago Cbrera and Paola Giannini) who have taken in Ema’s adopted son. Ema’s careful manipulation of the situation and of the people in her life can be shocking, but you can’t help but be in awe of the manner in which she twists lust and desire to ensure that she’s the one holding all the cards. 

Such a character could be very hard to like. She always feels somewhat at a distance, a dancing contradiction both living in the moment and in a constant state of planning and scheming. What makes her a fascinating lead is this central contradiction and the mesmerising performance from newcomer Mariana Di Gioralmo. She embraces every aspect of her character to deliver a striking and fearless performance. Not only is she a very talented dancer, but Gioralmo has a unique charisma that enables Ema to be endlessly fascinating, even if she is morally questionable. 

Larrain’s latest is not his most reserved piece, and it can at times feel as though it gets a bit too distracted with its own quirks. Some scenes play out a little beyond their welcome, with Larrain’s camera having a tendency to ogle for a beat too long. It can be an uncomfortable experience at times, but there’s an electric sense of life to the proceedings, fuelled by its colourful surroundings, it’s wonderful cast and a fantastic score by Nicolás Jaar. It is a film that is hot to the touch; it feels dangerous and volatile but also enrapturing. That is thanks to the spirit of the city of Valparaíso that radiates on screen, an energy that’s more than matched by it’s startling lead actress. 

Dir: Pablo Larrain

Scr: Guillermo Calderón, Alejandro Moreno

Cast: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Paola Giannini, Santiago Cabrera

Prd: Juan de Dios Larraín

DOP: Sergio Armstrong

Music: Nicolás Jaar

Country: Chile

Year: 2019

Run time: 102 mins

Ema will be available on MUBi from Friday May 1st.