★★★★★

When Pablo Larraín took the helm of Jackie, it was the first time the Chilean director had attempted two things: a story set outside of Latin America and one with a female protagonist. With Ema, Larraín is back in his home country, weaving a tightly-controlled narrative of family and female empowerment around its magnetic central character.

“Valparaiso, how absurd you are, what a lunatic” Pablo Neruda once wrote of the Chilean port city, which provides the backdrop for Larraín’s latest feature. The same could be said of Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) herself, the title character, who waltzes (or perhaps street dances) her way through this electric, eye-popping tale of problem marriages and personal freedoms.

Ema and Gastón (Gael García Bernal) are a couple whose relationship has hit the rocks. Having struggled with the at-times violent behaviour of their adoptive son, Polo (Cristián Suárez), they return him to the state and contend with the backlash. Members of the dance company where they both work are critical of their decision and the inner guilt prove unbearable for Gastón. He holds Ema responsible and scolds her for having ‘lost’ their child.

For her part, Ema finds solace in the company of her fellow dancers, marshalling her bohemian friends to enact an unusual plan of action. One which will help resolve her present dilemma whilst challenging the social expectations of those involved. Those sequences in which she dances alone across a deserted pier or engages in what could be described as light arson are captured so vividly by Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography that they could furnish a separate write-up all on their own.

Ema is an astonishing film. Constructed of peppery conflicts and passionate affairs, emotionally fraught speeches and tender embraces, most of them elicited by Ema herself. She glides through the film wearing an inscrutable smile, certain of herself and her plan of action. Brilliantly acted, shot with precision and style, this is a deconstruction of the ‘nuclear family’ that cries out for a second or third viewing.

Pablo Larraín’s Ema is available to watch on MUBI from 2 May.

Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom