Ema (2019) analysis – A Pallet of Disarrayed Colors


“Ema”, the film opens with a scene where a girl bearing hypnotic eyes is burning the city down. It’s a montage that captivates your attention immediately and leaves you yearning for more. If we talk on the surface it’s a very linear and basic story that one might have heard of before or could make references to some of the films of the same genre. But it’s in the details that your conscience gets entangled so much so that you can’t help but admire the uniqueness of the premise, tacked together by the director, Pablo Larrain.

Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), a dancer and performer, decides to adopt a boy named Polo, due to the inability of her husband Gaston played by Gael Garcia Bernal to give her one. Gaston is a choreographer who specializes in Chilean Folk Dance. Ema is part of his troop. Due to the violent acts of their adoptive son, which included burning the face of Ema’s sister and disfiguring it, the couple decides to give up the custody of their son. What follows is a peregrination filled with remorse and penitence. 

Beyond the Surface

Pablo Larrain’s earlier works include films like Jackie, No, Neruda and the much talked about film called “The Club.” The world of Larrain is often seen to be full of ruptured souls. This time it is the portrayal of a gloom ridden couple, their noxious dynamics and their virulent lives. The intoxicating blame game between them becomes incessant. Simultaneously Ema embarks on a psychedelic and sensual journey of self destruction. She leaves the dance group of Gaston with a few other colleagues and together they join a street group. The group performs a dance form known as Reggaetron, which is not considered to be very sophisticated by the patrons of orthodox dance forms. This disapproval is mainly because the kind of sensual expressions and overt moves promulgated by Reggaetron style. Ema finds liberation in her relationships with both men and women and the Reggaetron becomes the symbol of her deliverance.

Ema is unfettered in her approach. She expresses herself through her body in an unabashed manner. As the director dwells deeper into her psychology you realize that Polo, her adopted son acquired the taste of destruction through her. Ema torpedoes the psychedelic city of Valparaiso, with a fire blazer on her shoulder and encapsulating an electrifying vigor. But at the same time a greater fire rises inside her. She is vicious, catastrophic but guilt ridden. One might even think of her as a sociopath. She herself admits that she is evil and maybe that is why she could never fulfill her desire of giving birth to a baby. One never really gets to know the psyche of Ema behind this incessant desire of having a baby. Ema is undeniably complicated and flawed, yet relatable.

Gaston is 12 years elder to Ema and is of the opinion that their son Polo has more hatred towards her, as a betrayal by women hurts more. They hurl acquisitions at each other, often shedding off their calm demeanor. He disregards her dance form, but gets jealous when he hears about the sexual encounters. Ema knows that Gaston loves her. Even when she goes for filing a divorce, she does not have to think twice before telling the lawyer the love they both still feel for each other. Sometimes it is the vey trauma that we go through together, that causes an un-amendable creak in a relationship.

Mariana Di Girolamo as Ema has given a performance of a lifetime. Gael Garcia Bernal has ably supported her to create a whimsical and ruptured world.

Speaking through Images

Pablo Larrain speaks though images. A montage might not mean anything if viewed in a secluded manner but contributes to the heap of emotions that the screenplay succeeds in portraying. The anguish, the guilt, the remorse is depicted through the beats of Reggaetron. It a delight to watch Mariana Di Girolamo moving and expressing herself through the well choreographed and bold moves that send a sensual chill down the spine.  The cinematography by Sergio Armstrong takes us deep inside the mind and sensibilities of Ema, making use of a set of images that exhibit a startling beauty. One would easily get mesmerized by seeing the play of colors and lights, with every distinct color symbolizing a strong emotion and feeling. Colors, music and dance are cohered together to form a sensually expressive narrative.

Like a Kid with a Bomb

Pablo Larrain has often described his style of film-making as “a kid with a bomb.” You never know in which direction the narrative is going to take you. But you flow with it. And when you think that things are going a bit lull, the bomb explodes. Larrain takes a route that is weird yet plausible. His characters seem to believe in the ideology of “burning in order to sow again.” The destruction becomes an inevitable and necessary part of one’s process in order to reinvent them. The uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen next keeps the audience at the edge of their seats. The ending too can very well be deemed as open ended, leaving it to the interpretations of the viewers.

Ema, streaming on MUBI, is a highly watchable pallet of disarrayed colors that will surely leave your sensibilities shaken.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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