Despite worldwide screenings for Ema having been called off due to these pandemic times, Latinx cineastes have not shut up about Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s latest film, now showing exclusively on the movie platform Mubi in May and June.
Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a young dancer who decides to separate from her infertile and choreographer husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal) after they decide to return Polo (the Colombian boy they legally adopted) back to the agency since they were incapable of raising him. Feeling guilty and desperate, she begins searching for lovers, both men and women, on the streets of Valparaiso to drown her sorrows. But it’s not her only objective: She also has a secret plan which includes breaking down all social and cultural norms of marriage and sexuality to get it all back.
It turns out this film’s been trending in the Americas and in Europe for the last year and I admit I had not heard about it until a Colombian culture connoisseur friend forced me to watch it for the second time with her on Mubi, since she was one of the lucky few to have seen it on the big screen in Madrid before we were locked down in March. “You will love it as much as I did,” she said. “I promise.” So I followed her orders. Then, the very minute I finished watching Ema, my heart still racing from the hallucinatory ride of this undefinable and provocative film, I gave the same orders via WhatsApp to a Chilean-American journalist friend who had recently interviewed and written about Rosalía.
What connects the film to the Spanish pop star? Technically, nothing. But during the film I couldn´t stop thinking that with Larraín’s muted neon hues over industrial shots of Valparaiso, slick urban dance choreographies by José Vidal and synth-heavy reggaetón tunes by Nicolas Jaar, that somehow Ema felt like the film version of Rosalía’s “Malamente” video but with a different plot of course.
I can only surmise that Larraín, an educated Chilean in his mid-forties, was drawn to Rosailía´s reggaetón and trap obsessed young generation. Initially he was probably both horrified and captivated by it as most people who haven’t grown up exposed to the music are. In Ema, the critically acclaimed Chilean auteur (Jackie, Neruda) takes this controversial music’s inherent rebellious dance style — a fusion of furious Spanish flamenco arm poses and aggressive booty gyrations derived from African dance — and juxtaposes it onto the graffiti-filled streets of an ultra-catholic and conservative Valparaiso. He creates a place where young Chilean working class women of multi skin shades and hair color perrean for their own pleasure in public, which has never been a trend in the southern cone of South America until now.
Larraín has not only created the ultimate subversive Latin American feminist with Ema for our cinematic days, but the searing dialogue in this film is so raw, you’ll be tempted to re-listen to it for a laugh, and also because the Chilean slang in this movie can be hard to capture if you’re not native.
It’s a particular scene in this film, a diatribe against reggaetón, that has had people talking. Because at every social gathering it’s what the two opposing camps feel. You either get reggaetón or you don’t. And even if you get it and secretly dance to it in the shower, most educated people won’t admit they like it in public because of its crude aesthetics, misogynist lyrics and macho man exaggerations.
Larraín found the perfect leading man in Bernal to deliver these lines with a lot of shit expletives against all that is wrong with reggaetón via the male perspective. He plays a soft spoken choreographer from the middle class who’s married to the passionate and enigmatic Ema, who is one of his dancers in an experimental dance troupe. Their marriage is on the rocks, and her love for this salacious Latin music scares him for it also signals her inevitable abandonment and infidelity.
With a face that displays his uptightness and disgust, he begins his monologue by saying to Ema and her dancer friends that reggaetón sounds like prison music to him. Here I condense and translate their dialogue to exclude all the expletives:
“It’s music in which you don’t have to think, so you can forget about the prison you live in and to incarcerate your mind… It’s a hypnotic rhythm that makes you stupid… It’s an illusion of freedom…Yes, sex…Yes, drugs… Someone convinced them that if they move their little hips they’re a lot freer… It’s a culture of violence against women where they are made into sex objects and the guy is the big f%&¿ing macho man.”
His closing line: “I shit on reggaetón.”
Bernal’s character releases an enema filled with so much snobbism, fear, and perhaps a touch of classist and racial prejudices that there’s sheer relief on his face afterwards. He speaks for the majority of conservatives, threatened men, concerned parents, educators, and do-gooders’ thoughts about the most sensual dance alive on the planet right now.
Ema’s feisty female dancer friend (Giannina Fruttero) responds to their choreographer’s diatribe with this condensed reasoning in translation:
“I like to dance it because it’s like I’m having sex, happy, face red, cursing, hot, juicy, crazy, moving… And suddenly… I’m surrounded by people. And they are all equally hot, and moving like they were having sex, but with music. It’s fun, it’s life. And I’m dancing life for you. If you are here it’s because someone, at some moment, got hot and had an orgasm.”
Her closing line: “And today we can dance that orgasm.”
Ema sets fire to all the social norms that we accept as sensible in Latino and Catholic culture as her character also experiments with polygamy. In this movie everything is either a contradiction or at odds with each other: the structure of marriage, parenting, love, sex, and even dance. Contemporary dance works on the notion that bodies couple. reggaetón is pure friction. One happens on stage and works with the idea of control. The other takes over the streets and is a loss of control. And though you can dance reggaetón with many people, in essence you’re dancing it for yourself.
“It is an individual dance of a generation that lives individualism with great respect for the community,” said Larraín about the music genre in an interview with El País.“I think that a good part of the new generation is deeply political despite the contrary impression because it denies the political channels that we, the generation of its parents, have imposed. It is a generation that stands up against consumerism, against the consequences of the latter on climate change and that abhors the binary relationship of sex since it recognizes in it all the evils derived from possession: male violence. That is our heritage. They do not believe in romantic love for what they have to exploit the other. They are convinced that love can be lived differently, more directly and with a deep respect for the other.”
Reggaetón is a political attitude in Larraín´s mesmerizing and experimental masterpiece of form. It’s a world where a fierce girl gang can love whoever they wish, strut freely like Pat Benatar’s generation did in her “Love is a Battlefield” video without having to smile. Instead these feministas puff out their chests with their chins pointed up and semi-snarl instead. We are young and we will perrear if we want to.