• Shayna Maci Warner

'Ema': Mariana Di Girolamo Dazzles, Initiates Bi Anarchy [Review]

As night falls on the streets of Valparaiso, Chile, a traffic signal self-combusts. “Stop” no longer has meaning. From here on in, we go — without hesitation, without arbitrarily imposed constraints like warning lights or public/private boundaries or common decency. Nothing is going to stop until it decides to halt of its own accord, and all other traffic is just going to have to swerve, or risk death by pyre.

So begins director Pablo Larraín’s hallucinogenic, pulsating, spinning Ema, about a girl who, as described by titular actress Mariana Di Girolamo in a Sundance Q&A (the film premiered at TIFF in 2019), has the hypnotic and literally incendiary qualities of the sun. Ema is an explosive, unapologetically queer Reggaeton dancer who, along with her choreographer husband Gastón (the impressively sleazy Gael García Bernal), returns their adopted son to the orphanage. That emergency event, piecemeal-revealed through a series of allusions to arson, pet murder, and psychosexual trauma, kickstarts Ema’s journey toward the complete rewriting of her own fate.

From her first movement, a feature in a massive contemporary dance piece against the entrancing projection of a solar flare provided by NASA, all eyes are on Ema, and all ears are captured by Nicolás Jaar’s flowing, captivating EDM/Reggaeton score. Within the world of the dance, bodies pile up around Ema, and in her daily life, all but a select gang of female dancers who treat her as a sort of cult leader act as if Ema is the anti-Christ. Although it is suggested that both Chilean Ema and Mexican Gastón made the decision to give back their adopted Colombian son Polo (Cristián Suárez) together, Gastón, the inordinately aggressive social worker, the teachers at the elementary school where she teaches movement, and Ema’s sister all put the most blame on Ema. Gastón makes sure to launch the moist pointed barbs which underline their collectively self-absolving views: being rejected by a mother is the cruelest possible trauma. “I’ll never allow you to forget what he said,” Gastón whispers to Ema, stoic save for Di Girolamo’s effortless stream of tears. Gastón, like most of the designated authority figures in the film, can’t seem to help but delight in throwing stone after stone in a remarkably fragile glass house.

Ema’s plan, which remains unrevealed until a final, dreamily unravelled scene, is linked to this hypocrisy — that a failed mother must bear the blame for everyone else’s wrongs. This is not to say that Ema does no wrong. Far from it; she quite obviously has the capacity to hurt people, and her own place in Polo’s dysfunction is never transparently explained. But rather than default to accepting blame, Ema and her crew of young, equally outraged and volatile queer performers decide to change the rules of their world. For this, they go after the most symbolic center: a hetero-patriarchal family structure in which a mother is a saint and a scapegoat.

This dismantling hinges on a takedown of one family unit in particular — a beautiful, bored lawyer, and a chiseled bartender/volunteer firefighter (lured by the girls literally lighting private and public property on fire) who conveniently happen to be the key to also regaining contact with Polo. Ema and her crew seduce them both, separately, but with equal vigor, leading to even tenser conflicts with Gastón, and of course the threat of a tried and true trope: the evil, scheming bisexual screwing anything that walks. Thankfully, Ema uses that trope to its characters’ advantage and advancement of its plot, rather than a tired, stereotypical detriment.

In a twist to the casual, malignant chaos so many bisexual characters create merely by existing, Ema seems to genuinely, dysfunctionally love everyone involved — and everyone loves her. By the time she explains her Rube-Goldberg of social manipulation, strangely, everything does make sense, and the audience has been treated to sensual and emphatically queer, undeniably hot fucking along the way. These are real relationships, and it’s not Ema’s bisexuality that’s the problem — it’s the basis for a solution.

When placed in the context of Chile’s social uprising, Ema’s sexual revolution, her restructuring of old norms that clearly weren’t working for her, and the support she receives from her younger friends carries an even larger weight. For those of us not mired in Chilean politics, the country has been experiencing mass demonstrations since November of 2019, 30 years after the end of its last dictatorship. Chileans of all ages, but especially of those Ema and her companions’ ages (mid twenties-thirties) and working class backgrounds, have been demanding more from their government. The Chilean promise of prosperity under an illusory, “free market,” capitalistic democracy has officially dried up, saddling students with immense debt, and retirees with unlivable pensions.

As Ema uses her body to communicate absolute freedom through dance and sex (captured by Sergio Armstrong’s obviously entranced cinematography), she is carrying the desire for freedom, present but denied, to an entire class of Chileans. As Di Girolamo stated in the same Q&A, partly in answer to a question about Ema’s queerness, “this film is a portrait of a very brave generation fighting for their right to choose.” Ema and her friends can see a way forward, and they’re committed to achieving it — despite what outsiders like Gastón, or an old guard of teachers, choreographers, social workers, and even the Chilean government, might say.

The entire film is a dark, at times bizarrely funny delight that unfolds like a high-intensity thriller, and if there had to be one standout component, it would be Di Girolamo’s command of attention. Though not a professional dancer in real life, her portrayal of Ema has the audience fooled, and the sheer craving in her own body and inscrutability of her expression draws everyone to orbit around her. In real life, Di Girolamo in fact co-created much of her fictional role, authoring many of Ema’s choices both within scenes and in larger, character arc decisions, a fact that can only be to the actress's credit. In her fictional narrative, fundamental change is all but guaranteed, and while it may not seem inevitable to those comfortable enough to place blame on anyone but themselves, Ema has the will and raw magnetism to wreck their complacency. If you can stand to lose a little tranquility and get downright uncomfortable, Ema might change you too.

Ema was acquired by Music Box and is slated for US distribution in 2020.