• The San Juan Daily Star

‘Ema’ review: Maternal flame

By Jeannette Catsoulis

Eroticism and pyromania dance hand-in-hand through “Ema,” a thorny provocation from Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. To some, its title character — played with vivid impudence by Mariana Di Girólamo — will be a possibly insane enigma; to others, a heroic mother who will do anything to reclaim her adoptive son.

“When you know what I’m doing and why, you will be horrified,” she tells one of her many lovers. We would do well to believe her: A dancer by trade and a firestarter by inclination, she prowls the streets of Valparaíso, swathed in protective gear and brandishing a flamethrower. She and her husband (Gael García Bernal), a deflated choreographer, are divorcing, after a terrifying incident has caused them to relinquish their adoptive son. From the couple’s lacerating arguments, a picture emerges of the troubled boy’s shocking behavior — and its connection to Ema’s aberrant mothering.

Those details can make “Ema” play at times like a perverse horror movie. But Di Girólamo, icy and sinuous, sells us a woman trying to ease her hurt through perpetual motion. To Ema, carnality and dance seem one and the same, and both will be used as currency in a grand scheme that the warped script (by 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 his instincts are more primal. Egged on by Nicolas Jaar’s pounding reggaeton soundtrack, and buffed by Sergio Armstrong’s luminous cinematography, “Ema” moves with a dynamism that can’t blur its unsavory undertones. Whether a melodramatic comment on art and anarchy, or a wild experiment in toxic maternalism, the film feels like a fever that just won’t break.

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