‘Ema’ Review: Maternal Flame – The New York Times
Eroticism and pyromania dance hand in hand through “Ema”, a thorny provocation by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. For some, its main character – played with lively impudence by Mariana Di Girólamo – will be perhaps a crazy enigma; to others, a heroic mother who will do anything to get her adopted son back.
“When you know what I’m doing and why, you’ll be horrified,” she said to one of her many lovers. We would do well to believe her: A dancer by profession and a fire-lighter by inclination, she prowls the streets of Valparaíso, bundled up in a protective suit and wielding a flamethrower. She and her husband (Gael García Bernal), a deflated choreographer, divorce after a terrifying incident caused them to abandon their adopted son. From the couple’s heartbreaking arguments, a picture emerges of the shocking behavior of the troubled boy – and its connection to Ema’s aberrant mothering.
These details can make “Ema” play like a kinky horror movie at times. But Di Girólamo, icy and sinuous, sells us a woman trying to appease her pain with perpetual movement. For Ema, carnality and dance seem one and the same, and both will be used as bargaining chips in a grand scheme that the distorted writing (of Larraín, Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno) renders maddeningly opaque. .
Larraín’s previous film, “Jackie” (2016), also hugged a woman who had suffered a devastating loss, but this time her instincts are more primitive. Driven by the rhythmic reggaeton soundtrack of Nicolas Jaar and embellished by the luminous cinematography of Sergio Armstrong, “Ema” moves with a dynamism which cannot blur its unpleasant nuances. Whether it’s a melodramatic commentary on art and lawlessness, or a savage toxic motherhood experience, the film feels like a fever that just won’t break.
Rated R for profuse lovemaking and terrible parenting. In Spanish with subtitles. Duration: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.
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