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Film Review: Ema

12 June 20 words: Charlie and George Alexander

A beautiful, fluid and emotive study on guilt, love and power…

Director: Pablo Larrain
Starring: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Paola Giannini
Running time: 102 minutes

Pablo Larrain’s 2020 feature, Ema follows the free-falling eponymous hero, on a fiery and destructive path towards catharsis. Having given up their adopted son Polo due to his challenging temperament, Ema and Gaston find themselves overwhelmed in a dying marriage. We watch as the protagonist dances through; evading her inner demons in search of a bitter taste of freedom and power. 

Already established as a highly talented and stylistic creator after his Oscar-nominated Jackie, Larrain goes a step further with his 2020 feature, Ema, executing another stunningly melancholic story, which juggles complex and human themes of regret and pain. Evocative and emphatic, Nicolas Jaar’s score is pulsating from the start, providing an intensifying rhythm that creates a perfect balance of tension and absorption. The neon-soaked cinematography from Sergio Armstrong is exquisite, encapsulating the raw passion which shrouds the entire film and working insightfully with a motif of fire - symbolically appropriate for our out-of-control lead. Yet, for the more personal scenes with Ema and Gaston (played by the forever brilliant Gael García Bernal) Armstrong shifts the style, stripping it all down to create a bare, almost minimalist look, which is equally effective; intimate and emotive.  

The most beautiful film of the year so far

In both director Larrain’s and actress Mariana Di Girolamo’s credit, we become increasingly attached to our protagonist and her confounding schemes. Demonstrating an astounding combination of grief, anger and regression; we are perplexed but hooked by her instinctive decisions. The morality of her actions are beyond questionable, as she embarks on what seems like a solitary path towards self-destruction, through a myriad of sexual encounters and impulsive fits of rage. Constantly reminded of her impotence of motherhood, Ema oozes with suppressed emotion which makes for poignant and agonising viewing, of which Di Girolamo’s authentic performance should be celebrated widely. 

Information is cleverly held back by Larrain, who almost flirts with plot and imagery, feeding us piece-by-piece for the opening thirty minutes and eventually leaving us in a state of total captivation. Ema’s duplicitous behaviour snowballs as the narrative develops, creating a sense of unnerving dread for what lies ahead. However, structurally, the immersive and atmospheric qualities that Larrain achieves early on are slightly diverted as the film takes on a much more narrative-driven conclusion. Underwhelmingly, we aren’t granted the astute closure that would fit for a film of this magnitude, as Ema’s perverse and Machiavellian actions are notably glazed over. We await an insightful finale, yet, what follows seems rather pedestrian and ill fitting for a film built on heart and emotion.

Ema is expressive and powerful cinema at its finest, complimented by devastating visuals, making it the most beautiful film of the year so far. Our hypnotic lead is irresistible with her concoction of fortitude and desire, we, like the surrounding characters, are at her mercy. The film instantly abducts the audience; a sensory experience combined with an agonising narrative. Although bereft of a desired and accomplished finale, the sheer transfixing nature cannot be forgotten - an explosive portrayal of lust, control and shame.

Did you know? The film’s screenplay was written by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon.

Ema is streaming now

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