“Incendiary”, “anarchic” and “fearless” are some of the labels critics have applied to Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s latest feature Ema, which screens as a Special Presentation at TIFF following its world premiere in Venice and is being sold by The Match Factory.
The film, which marks Larrain’s return to his native Chile after the Oscar-nominated Jackie, takes its tempo and tone from its title character (Mariana Di Girolamo), a fiery dancer, teacher, mother to an adopted child and flame-thrower.
In the film, she is described as the “reggaeton queen”. Larrain describes her as a “force of nature – a sister, mother, daughter, wife, lover and dancer. She is the one that creates interest and desire, the sun every other planet would circulate around.”
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem (1968), in which Terence Stamp plays a subversive, good-looking young man who touches and disrupts the life of every member of a bourgeois Italian family he visits, was a key influence on Ema. But it’s the topic of adoption that serves as the narrative springboard for the film – and a failed adoption at that, with Ema seeking to reunite with the adopted son she’d returned to care after he’d burned her sister’s face.
Larrain says he wanted to present a truer picture of adoption in society than the often saccharine, happily-ever-after version often presented in films, particularly when it is an older child being adopted. “Adoption is one of the most generous acts a person or a couple can do,” the director suggests. “But it can also very difficult and sometimes we don’t want to talk about that. In Chile, there are a big number of failed adoptions – not only Chile but all over the world. I was struck by that and we thought to start from there.”
When Larrain cast Mariana Di Girolamo as Ema, he decided to make the film about a younger generation than he originally intended. “They are 15 years younger than me and they are very different,” he says of Ema and her friends. His lead character is spiky, defiant and confrontational. She doesn’t care whether anyone likes her or not, and Larrain doesn’t attempt to apply the “very simplistic mechanics of empathy” he thinks soften up too many mainstream movies.
“They basically humiliate the character in the first 30 minutes to make the audience feel sorry for that character,” he says. “Then you create empathy because that character has to overcome humiliation. I don’t think that should be the only way to make movies.”
In Venice, some critics questioned Larrain’s depiction of Ema’s sexual life – “It’s hard to shake off the impression that Larraín and his two male co-writers are getting a little intoxicated on the thrill of young modern women’s gender fluidity,” wrote Jonathan Romney for Screen International – but Larrain dismisses any notion that his new film is voyeuristic.
“[The sex] is more atmospheric, I don’t think it’s graphic – we don’t see nudity,” he says. “I am interested in the different potential affections and crossovers between genders. One thing I believe that is going on with this generation is that they don’t have the binary perception of gender that I might have. I have friends that are gay, or someone that is trans or someone that is lesbian – it is very clear that people in this generation don’t see it like that. Their sexuality is more open and more broad.”
He adds that he didn’t intend Ema to be a “provocation”, but simply a reflection of what he observes: “I was surprised by a lot of the reactions that talk about sex.”
Larrain isn’t sure how local audiences are going to react to a heroine as wild and transgressive as Ema – Chile, after all, is a Catholic country with a strong strain of conservatism. “If there is anything that is unpredictable, it is my country,” he says. “I also did The Club [about disgraced abusive priests] so I don’t think the Catholic community there particularly loves me. But I do think this movie could connect with a generation which is very free and interested in this type of content.”
Ask Larrain about how easy he finds it to switch between intensely personal, free-flowing projects like Ema and being a director for hire in the US, and he says he’s happy to do both. “It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to work under different circumstances and different structures,” says the filmmaker. “It’s wonderful to go home and create something as vivid and free as Ema. The other process, where things are more controlled and I am part of a bigger structure – I really enjoy it too. I work with amazing people, I learn and I want to deliver something interesting to that group.”
The Chilean maestro concludes with a football metaphor. “Sometimes I am part of a team where I control the ball more and sometimes I am part of the structure. As long as it means something to me, I can do both.”