Ex-adoptive mom refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer

Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo, center) and her dancer friends in Ema (Photos courtesy of Music Box Films)

By Richard Ades

“Whatever Lola wants…Lola gets.” Substitute the title character’s name for “Lola,” and that could be the theme song for Ema, the dance-fueled tale of a Chilean woman who has a knack for getting her way.

Well, not always. When the film begins, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and choreographer-husband Gaston (Mozart in the Jungle’s Gael Garcia Bernal) have lost their adopted son following a shocking incident. Young Polo (Cristian Suarez) had developed the bad habit of starting fires and had launched an attack on Ema’s sister that left her partially disfigured.

Now that Polo has been given up and adopted by a new set of parents, Gaston blames Ema for their loss by saying she encouraged the boy’s destructive habits. But Ema fights back with charges and insults of her own, such as calling her husband a “human condom” due to his biological inability to father a child of his own.

The resulting marital squabbles spill over into Gaston’s reggaeton dance troupe, threatening Ema’s position as a leading performer. Meanwhile, Ema loses her job teaching dance at Polo’s former school. The upshot is that she’s left with nothing—nothing, that is, except fierce determination and her uncanny ability to bend others to her will with the help of flirtation and, frankly, sex.

In other words, watch out.

The loss of their adopted child drives a wedge between Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal).

Ema is directed and co-written by Pablo Larrain, who helmed 2016’s Jackie, a psychological study of Jacqueline Kennedy that I found cold and uninvolving. Whatever else you can say about Ema, it’s anything but cold. Indeed, its most indelible image, which appears in the first scene and reappears at key moments, is of the title dancer wielding a flame thrower that sends spectacular bursts of fire and destruction far into the distance.

As for uninvolving, maybe it is, at first. The frequent dance segments, as well as our uncertainty over whom we should be rooting for in the Ema-Gaston battle, make it hard to buy into the tale. But once Ema has nothing left to lose, Di Girolamo’s measured but smoldering portrayal makes it impossible to sit this one out.

You still may not know whether you should be rooting for Ema, but don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time for that discussion after Larrain presents us with his provocative final image.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Ema (rated R for language and sexual content) opens Aug. 20 at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center, and will be available through VOD outlets beginning Sept. 14.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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