Writing about the Chilean port Valparaíso, Pablo Neruda observed, “How absurd you are … you haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.” He’s not alone in being drawn to the technicolor hillside town, which was for a time a hub of creativity until it was abandoned by many of its wealthier inhabitants in the ’80s and ’90s. Nowadays the town has an air of spontaneity and danger about it. No wonder Pablo Larraín chose it as the setting for Ema, centered around a troop of Reggaeton dancers led by the film’s chaotic, charismatic namesake.

Sporting a slicked-back bleach-blonde bob and stylish sportswear, dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) seems to cause carnage wherever she goes. She is quite literally a firestarter, stalking the predawn streets with a flamethrower strapped to her back. Her motivation for these arsons is ambiguous, but the inference seems clear: Larraín’s film is a missive against conservative attitudes in his native Chile, championing artistic freedom and sexual liberation. At the start of the story, Ema’s volatile marriage to choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal) has ended in tragedy, after they surrendered their adopted son Polo (Cristián Suárez) to social services because they couldn’t deal with his pyromania. Ema is unable to move past her guilt, and hatches a plot to reunite with the boy.

From Ema

This is the kind of film that hinges on its central performance, and Di Girolamo is completely beguiling. She wields her body like a weapon, whether she’s on the dance floor or trying to get someone to do what she wants. In Ema’s world, everything is all or nothing, from her reckless approach to motherhood to her job teaching children movement and dance. Her fear, lust, envy, sadness, and more subtly her vulnerability are all palpable. And Bernal is a wonderful foil, matching her energy with Gastón’s grumpiness and exhaustion. The film is a harrowing depiction of a soured relationship that still harbors a burning attraction which refuses to peter out. During one of their unpleasant rows, Gastón accuses Ema of corrupting Polo with her own pyromaniac tendencies. In another, she mocks his infertility. In one standout scene, he delivers an impotent rant about his hatred of Reggaeton.

From Ema

Nicolás Jaar’s ethereal score adds a dreamlike quality to Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno’s poetic but hazy script, which drifts between the past and present. Larraín expertly captures the agony and ecstasy of grief and guilt. In an age of sanitized mainstream cinema, it’s thrilling to watch a film that revels in carnal pleasures. As Ema desperately seeks distraction, she finds temporary solace in a tangle of lithe bodies moving as one. Ema also makes for poignant viewing in the midst of COVID-19. Shot in 2018 and first screened almost two years ago at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, its depiction of communal thrill nights spent drinking and dancing is timeless. So too is the film’s core conceit, that loving someone at their most disagreeable is a radical act of defiance.

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Ema opens in select theaters August 13.

Hannah Strong is the Associate Editor at Little White Lies magazine and a freelance journalist writing about film and popular culture.