Platinum-haired Ema (newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo) is a charismatic dancer, part of a troupe led by her choreographer husband, Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal). Ema’s dance moves are from the street; namely reggaeton which is a high-energy dance style from ’90s Puerto Rico that blends the passion of hip-hop with Spanish dance hall. Gastón finds it low-brow, calling it music for prisoners in jail; one of Ema’s friends says she feels likes she is dancing the orgasm that made her. It’s that kind of movie.
But the couple is reeling from something much darker. In a melodrama worthy of early Pedro Almodóvar, they have just handed back their adopted child, 12, who set fire to their home and burnt Ema’s sister’s face. Gastón is realistic and resigned, Ema is not, and she decides on a mad plot to get him back by seducing everyone in sight, including, separately, the boy’s new parents.
All this is utterly bonkers but thrilling to watch as Ema unleashes her life force and sets out to make the system bend to her will. In another culture, this could be a dour social drama with emotion played out in courtrooms; here it is all about enigmatic Ema striding through the streets of Valparaiso with the sisterhood in tow, mowing down anything that gets in her path.
It’s light on dialogue and heavy on dance, with the added motif of fire thrown in. The scene where Ema wields a massive flame-thrower is a heavy-handed but compelling show of her determination to leave scorched earth in her wake.
It’s hard to know why you would even like her and yet you do. She doesn’t complain or explain, she just takes what she wants, decked out in ‘90s dance gear – blousy pants and cropped tops – that looks inexplicably stylish. The musical score from Nicolas Jaar is suitably electrifying.
Ema premiered as part of the Spanish Film Festival and opens in cinemas on May 20.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.