Ema: Pablo Larraín Tells the Story of an Atypical Chilean Family

SANTIAGO – Pablo Larraín’s latest film Ema steps away from history stuff. Instead, he tells an intimate story about Ema’s search for a perfect family. Taking an unrepentant artistic approach, this film will mesmerize enthusiasts but alienate the mainstream.

Larraín has become synonymous with Chilean cinema, thanks especially to gripping tales like “NO.” Even more provocative was the following movie, “El Club,” about abuse in the Chilean Catholic Church. So far, he has presented shocking issues in an easily accessible way. But with “Ema” Larraín took another turn.

Its simple plot is constantly twisting into unexpected directions as the cast brings the story to life. The synthesizer heavy musical score and a dark but colorful cinematography add to make this movie an arthouse experience.

Simple Story – With a Twist (Spoiler Alert)

The main character, Ema, is introduced during the first 15 minutes. She has to deal with her adoptive son going back to Sename, Chile’s hellish state institutions for orphans, where she is not allowed to see him. In between the scenes, Ema appears as partaking in a modern dance recital in front of a giant screen of the sun. This is Larraín’s way of telling the audience that Ema and her husband couldn’t have kids on their own so they adopted one. But they couldn’t deal with their son’s bad behavior and sent him back into the state’s orphan system.

While the montage explains the situation perfectly, the film provides more information, which causes a slowdown. But Larraín keeps it rolling enough to sustain viewers’ interest. 

Ema’s personal and professional life falls apart because she misses her son. Midway through the film she concocts a plan with some friends, but this plan comes to light fully only at the end, when everything falls into place. My biggest issue with the movie relates to these side characters. Only two of Ema’s friends, for example, serve a purpose while the rest have no reason to stick around.

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Mariana Di Girolamo as Ema

The best actor is without doubt Mariana Di Girolamo in the role of Ema. She elevates a character that ran the risk of being boring. Di Girolamo even holds her own against a well-performing Gael García Bernal, her onscreen husband, which is even more remarkable considering this is her first starring role. The good chemistry between Di Girolamo and García Bernal shows. Their joint scenes are captivating. 

Cristián Suárez, playing adoptive son Polo, deserves a special mention. He doesn’t have much screen time, but whenever he appears, he conveys the right emotions that help flesh out this unconventional family.

Beautiful Visuals and Mesmerizing Music

The first image in the movie is a traffic light on fire, signaling the film’s arthouse nature. Larraín also uses bold and bright colors throughout the film, turning Valparaíso into a visually stunning place. This way Larraín shows his admiration for Italian films like Suspiria, which use similar techniques – including the dancing – to bring life to the screen.

Editing and the musical score are top-notch. The former advances the story and both together convey the narrative in a way that helps the audience keep up. The music, consisting of synthesizers and heavy reggaeton beats, sticks to the scenes and stays in the mind for a long time.

Great Movie – Just Not for Everyone

“Ema” is much more European than Larraín’s other works. It even screened in Venice before premiering  in Chile. Although it has been well received, Larrain’s previous films have won more praise. In the end, this one is definitely not for a mainstream audience. But arthouse lovers can’t miss it.

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