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Martin Scorsese recently published an editorial in the Los Angeles Times urging readers to go watch Guillermo del Toro’s stylish Nightmare Alley (currently in theaters, including a black and white version; available on Hulu and HBO Max starting February 1). I was lukewarm on it but nonetheless saddened by its underwhelming box office against that menace Spider-Man (J. Jonah Jameson was right!). “A filmmaker like Guillermo,” Scorsese concluded, “doesn’t just need our support: he deserves it.”

The same could be said for any number of essential filmmakers on the scene, from Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir Parts I and II) to newcomer Janicza Bravo (Zola). Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín is no exception, and I’d like to stump for his under seen, truly unique Ema, which was released in Chile in September 2019 but due to COVID-related complications got dumped in the United States last year, playing in a paltry 27 theaters (for perspective, Nightmare Alley played in roughly 2,100 theaters—or one whole King’s Daughter, to use my new favorite unit of measurement).

Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a professional reggaeton dancer and part-time arsonist. The film finds her and older husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) raw from returning their adopted, troubled son Polo (Cristian Felipe Suarez) to the orphanage, an unspeakable act in the eyes of all members of the professional class they encounter. We learn that Polo set fire to their house, badly disfiguring his aunt in the process, though returning the child reads less as an act of parental ambivalence than some bizarre ritual of familial self-immolation, the spark by which Ema and Gastón sacrifice their marriage so something new might emerge from the ashes.  

Set and shot in the major port city Valparaíso, Ema’s concerned with frictions between past and present and the destruction wrought by the new. At one point the troupe Ema dances in and Gastón choreographs mutiny against Gastón’s traditionalist “folklore,” accusing him of perpetuating a romanticized, ossified image of a city that never existed. Gastón dismisses their preferred dance style of reggaeton as “prison music.” It’s pretty clear where Larraín’s sympathies lay. The film’s best sequence is a montage featuring Ema and her renegade dance crew rhythmically thrusting their way through Valparaíso’s rooftops, basketball courts, inside a bus, boat docks, etc.

Ema is Larraín’s eighth feature, sandwiched between period dramas Jackie and last year’s Spencer. In those movies, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) and Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) are micro-scrutinized super egos, executing elaborate, delicate public performances while self destructively fantasizing about chewing pearls. Ema, pure id, doesn’t have time for that, nor does she seem particularly fazed when an exacerbated orphanage worker tells her and Gastón to fix their “rotten heads” before adopting children. Spencer’s major, subtle acts of defiance involve opening curtains. In Ema it’s taking a flamethrower to a traffic light (“male dinosaur cum,” she describes it). Larraín finds empathy in both.

Mere weeks following Ema’s Chilean release, the country erupted in civil protests against a subway fare increase for the Santiago Metro. What began as students jumping turnstiles escalated to vandalism and arson, years of inequality boiling over. Ema is essential for its prescience in addition to its artistry. It’s not an angry film, but like Věra Chytilová’s Czechoslovakian masterpiece Daisies, is weary of the status quo, and eager to see what comes next.

Ema (2019)

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPA Rating: R

Streaming: Showtime; Amazon Prime (premium subscription); Hulu (premium subscription)

Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....