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Whether dancing or standing still, the body in ‘Ema’ tells the story

Ema is the strangest of things: a dancer with a passion for fire. In “Ema”, the film by Pablo Larraín, the main character also has a particular look: bleached hair slicked back so severely that it seems to be cocked up to his head. This hairstyle, tough and impenetrable, is like armor, which makes sense. Ema is made of ice. Until she dances.

Set in the coastal town of Valparaíso in Chile, “Ema”, now in theaters and on Amazon and other digital platforms from September 14, tells the story of a couple, an older choreographer and a young dancer – Gastón (Gael García Bernal) and Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) – who adopted and then abandoned a Colombian boy named Polo. The reason they abandon the boy turns out to have something to do with the fire; he is fond of it. It is not difficult to draw conclusions about who might have encouraged it.

Ema is a member of her husband’s experimental dance company, and it’s no secret that she’s lost interest in her – and in him. Her obsession is reggaeton and its dance, which she appreciates for its aggressive sensuality; outside the dance studio with her friends, her body is electric as she lets her limbs fly and her hips shake. Gaston is not impressed. For him, reggaeton is music to be listened to in prison, “to forget the bars you have in front of you”.

Their generational gap is evident as Gastón continues, “It’s a hypnotic rhythm that makes you a fool. It is an illusion of freedom.

Is it? Who is Ema? She has abandoned her son, but seems to want to get him back. She’s a seductress who wears – and uses – her body with steely and precise intent. Although his inner world is a mystery, it is clear that reggaeton makes him feel: free.

Dancing is the key. But unlike so many movies and TV shows lately, it’s not a superficial layer added to the story. In “Ema”, Larraín, the director of “Jackie” and the future “Spencer”, gave dance, or movement, a leading role. It is also a means to an end that goes beyond conventional choreography: how can dance bring Ema closer to freedom? Whether alone or with her friends – a collective body moving as one – her physicality spreads through every scene. And she doesn’t even have to move: her inner vibrations are just as lucid in stillness.

For this reason, the film, with its dreamlike score, is also a kind of dance – floating, soaring and then, all of a sudden, spinning on a penny. “Ema” is an action movie, but not in the conventional sense: The Body is the action. And although there is dialogue, the words add less than the deliberate rhythm of each scene and the poetic power of Di Girolamo’s setting.

In a magnetic solo at the port, a dark light envelops the silhouette of Di Girolamo as she turns her back to us and her legs spread. His right arm, bent at the elbow, is raised, his hand in a fist. Rocking her hips, she swings side to side as her arms open and close. It’s hypnotic, but she’s not fooled. She is strong and tenacious; you can feel the tension leaving her body through her dance.

As she picks up the pace, walks with determination and changes direction, her back ripples and her slanted arms sculpt the air at an imaginary rhythm. Moments later, she takes a ride, but there are echoes of her dance: as she grabs her horse’s pole, she swings, diving from side to side; she is almost relaxed.

Once she stops moving, her expression changes: her thick eyebrows frame a stone face. She looks like a cat with the kind of look that makes you feel invisible; at the same time, she dances as if you were invisible. She no longer needs an audience.

Di Girolamo is not a trained dancer, although she studied flamenco for a few months as a teenager. Her mother decided she had better do this than be in therapy. “This was literally therapy for me, ”Di Girolamo said in a recent Zoom interview. “It gave me the tools to be empowered and keep moving forward.”

But she loves to dance. (Her husband is a DJ) In “Ema” she had tools to help her body acclimate to her character: one was the hair, which helped her see Ema as an energy – like the sun, like fire. “She’s very hypnotic and in some ways very dangerous or destructive,” Di Girolamo said, “but you also want to be close to her.”

The other was his training. Di Girolamo worked closely with Chilean choreographer José Vidal, whose company appears in the film. Mónica Valenzuela was also part of the choreographic team, and her attention had more to do with reggaeton moments. “I think Pablo wanted more of a mean move that I apparently wasn’t quite able to come up with,” Vidal said, laughing, in an interview. “So she came to add spice. It’s not like there’s the first sentence, the second sentence – it’s a mixture of all the materials.

Vidal’s choreographic approach consisted of studying Di Girolamo’s mobility: the flexibility of his spine, the amplitude of his arms. He then made it into a language. “It’s more of a street dance, a kind of reggaeton,” he said. “But it never came straight from there. My intention was, OK, we’ll get there. But we’re going to get there from an inner place.

The process started with immersive work that helped Di Girolamo “connect to herself, to her emotions, to her structure,” Vidal said. “How does it feel to move in here” – he patted his chest and swung his shoulders – “and what connects you to every emotion?” It was never about making him imitate or repeat something directly.

Di Girolamo also had to blend in with the professional dancers of Vidal’s company. The opening scene features an excerpt from his “Rito de Primavera”, inspired by “The Rite of Spring”. To dance there, Di Girolamo studied ballet and Pilates. “I don’t have a very good posture so we worked on it,” she said. “I had to understand the limits and possibilities of my body.

This led her to discover Ema’s physicality – her paced, level-headed walk and the way she invades the space both to intimidate and to get what she wants. “The dance was very important for me to understand how it appeals to other characters,” said Di Girolamo. “This is the tool she has, and she is aware of this tool.”

She spent a lot of time on the floor breathing. Vidal called it an initiation into the body, into movement. Approaching his posture, Vidal focused on opening up his chest, which in turn paved the way for demonstrating his freedom of taste, even being vulnerable. There’s a reason the harbor scene is so fresh and spontaneous.

“I remember it was very cold and Pablo said, ‘Mariana, now you have to improvise a dance scene,’” said Di Girolama. “I was like, what? But I started to dance. I took the same steps of the choreography, but I deconstructed them. I’m not very good at improvising, but if I have tools, things that I know, I can do something with them. I sort of deconstructed the choreography into a new one.

It was not easy. “I was very nervous,” she said. “It’s like singing. It’s something very personal. It’s like a window to our souls.

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