- Movie Rating -

Ema (2019)

| August 29, 2021

[This review is part of my ongoing coverage of the films screened at Birmingham Alabama’s 23rd Annual Sidewalk Film Festival]

Pablo Larraine’s Ema opens with one of the most striking images that I can recall.  It’s nighttime on an empty street and we are looking at a stoplight on fire.  I hoped and prayed that the remaining moments of the movie would be as compelling and, for once, my prayers were answered.  I had hope because Larraine is a director whose work always seems a little askew – he previously made Jackie about the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assignation, and the Oscar nominated No, about a group of advertisers who organize a political campaign to free their country from a ruthless dictator.  Larraine is not a director who offers you comfort.  He asks you to trust him.

The image of the stoplight says so much about the character that we are about to follow.  The social construction, the mandates laid out before her, the expectations of being a woman in male-dominated world, no longer have any meaning.  Ema is tired of stoplights, ready to reinvent how she approaches the world in the wake of a decision that she has come to regret.  She is not like anyone you have ever met in a movie, a deeply complicated woman with a lock-step idea of who she is and what she wants.  She throws herself into a world of phosphorescent color and Reggaeton music, dance routines that free her body from the confines of what it means to a woman to move in the world.  And in her relationships, both sexual and emotional, she moves around like she is mingling between guests at a party culminating in a montage of sexual encounters that no American filmmaker could ever get away with.

And yet . . . and yet, she is not an object in this story.  Yes, Ema is beautiful.  Yes, she is sexy.  Yes, she is flirty, but the movie doesn’t fixate on these things.  She is not a sexual object for our amusement.  They are part of the character, part of the complex interior world that she has built for herself.  For us the viewer, she is hard to pin down.  She would seen to be a dancer, a pyromaniac, a destroyer of relationships and, in the middle, perhaps a desire for motherhood.  We can never pin her down, and those looking for an hard-lined definition of her character will walk away frustrated.

The film builds a sort of flashback structure that allows us to understand how she got here.  Sometime ago, she and her husband Gaston (Gale Garcia Bernal) did the unthinkable: they returned their adopted child Pablo after he emulated Ema’s fire-lust and gave her sister a third-degree burn.  Deeply regretting her decision, Ema launches into a bizarre plot to get the kid back that includes her dance pals and some weird bits of seduction – a long-con that is more easily understood when you see it then when I describe it.

So much of this movie is like that.  We’re building to an ending that would be the envy of the writer of the latest heist movie, and when the thing is finally revealed at the end, we know that getting there was impossible but the reward is invaluable.  Ema is not a movie that can really be described.  It has to be experienced.  There so much to it, so much that challenges you, challenges your perceptions, challenges the way you think about movie.  I loved every frame of it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2019) View IMDB Filed in: Foreign