Ema (2019) Review

Pablo Lorrain Ema Bernal

Ema (2019)
Director: Pablo Larraín
Screenwriters: Guillermo Calderón, Alejandro Moreno
Starring: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Paola Giannini, Cristián Suárez, Mariana Loyola

One of the most alive, bustling and energetic movies of 2019, Pablo Larraín’s intense and morally atypical character study combines the trademark features of some of Europe’s most provocative filmmakers to create a sensory spectacular that simply begs to be looked at.

Opening with a beautifully photographed shot of an above-road traffic light on fire, an immediate statement regarding the unusual nature of the title’s thematic exploration regarding sexuality (some of the colours of the LGBTQ+ flag in flames) and the picture’s overall visual approach is made; the image also providing a warm welcome to anti-authoritarian themes both within the narrative itself and within the structure and presentation of the narrative by the filmmaker. Within seconds, it feels like you’re watching as much an act of societal rebellion as you are a movie by a well respected director.

Youthful and flamboyant, Ema makes definitive statements about the overthrowing of societal norms in search of inner peace as the central characters Ema (Di Girolamo) and Gastón (Bernal) are regularly torn between what they are and what they are expected to be, or what they expect themselves to become, based upon pre-conceived notions regarding their genders, nationalities, careers and class. This tearing apart of a person’s inner balance is what is central to the journey of Ema, and the way in which the characters maintain a sense of self and achieve moments of relative happiness can offer a reassuring and always vibrant snapshot of life that keeps clawing the film forward.

The central narrative of a dancer overcoming stress and anxiety at being separated from her adopted son is one that twists and is reshaped as the picture intelligently reveals more and more information in amongst its vast array of visual motifs. The character-focused piece comes to centre upon a narrative function by the film’s end in a way that is not disjointed but instead invigorating, the directorial focus upon the central protagonist ensuring our journey is firmly in line with hers.

Coming off the back of the similarly female-focused Jackie (starring Natalie Portman with an Oscar-nominated performance), it is clear that this filmmaker, whose work has always had a striking visual presence and strong individual focus, builds upon his already impressive ouevre again with this picture, the film feeling every bit as expensive as a Hollywood release but featuring some out-of-the-box artistic decisions and an overall vibrancy that distinctly separates it from almost all American studio work being released in the contemporary market.

With a likeness to off-kiltered expressions of family similar to We Need to Talk About Kevin on the page, hints of Iñárritu within the visuals, and the type of surging score we’ve come to associate with Hans Zimmer, Ema not only feels out of the ordinary and challenging, but also completely immersive and believable; a somewhat special venture into a world of sexual empowerment that challenges heteronormative societal and cinematic functions to provide a much welcomed breath of fresh air to the cinematic landscape. Ema, much like its Colombian cousin Monos, is proof of a burgeoning South American art scene that is proving more and more undeniable as a prevalent voice in world film.

Ema is a film of the year.

20/24