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Pablo Larraín and Gael García Bernal Re-Team for ‘Ema’

Formal experimentation continues to be the name of the game for the duo behind ‘No’ and ‘Neruda.’
Gael Garcia Bernal Neruda
By  · Published on August 6th, 2018

Formal experimentation continues to be the name of the game for the duo behind ‘No’ and ‘Neruda.’

Sometimes, filmmakers are blessed with the joy and security of finding their perfect muses, and frankly, there is little sense in letting go of that kind of creative marriage between phenomenal on- and off-screen talent. This is exactly the case for the dream team that is director Pablo Larraín and actor Gael García Bernal. After making two knock-outs on the big screen together — No and Neruda — the pair is back in action with something potentially different.

IndieWire dropped the news that Larraín and García Bernal are preparing to shoot Ema. Written by Guillermo Calderon (Neruda) and New York-based playwright Alejandro Moreno, the movie will be — according to Larraín — a “melodrama” tackling the concerns of relationships and the “affections” that accompany them.

Set against the backdrop of the Chilean seaport Valparaiso, Ema is an original story centering on the struggles of a contemporary family in crisis. The film will star García Bernal in the role of a dance choreographer who is married to a school teacher portrayed by newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo. Together, the couple must deal with an adoption that goes terribly wrong, and the family unit slowly crumbles under the weight of a slew of emotional stressors.

Although such an emotionally taxing premise is not uncommon in the drama genre, Larraín plans to use a fascinating tool in order to express all that intensity: contemporary dance. IndieWire notes that a variety of dance genres — including reggaeton — will play a big part in developing the filmic language of Ema and will help to narrate the main dramatic throughline in the movie.

Larraín intends to shoot Ema in the vein of real-life street dancers and will work with local choreographer Jose Vidal. Valparaiso’s hilly landscape will also be showcased in its full potential in the film. As Larraín states:

“[Dance is] a way to transmit a message — it could be a political message, or a religious message, or a kind of vandalism. Instead of yelling, they go out and dance. They’re expressing themselves by leaving a trace on the city. It’s very visual.”

Dance will serve as a mechanism of meaningful, emotional abstractions that make Ema unconventional and noteworthy. There’s ample reason to be excited about this, given that it lines up with Larraín’s general proclivity for experimentation. Throughout his filmography, the blatant use of metatextuality creates a deeper and more variable experience of art.

Subjectivity is vastly important to Larraín’s craft. Looking at No and Neruda, these films don’t simply provide some insight into history. In fact, they make for poor interpretations of the past if we were to assess them by accuracy alone. Regardless, No and Neruda ultimately end up being more bracing and memorable because Larraín consciously reminds audiences of their place as interpreters of these narratives, too. We are looking at atypical historical dramas here, after all.

No — the final chapter of Larraín’s Chile trilogy also comprising Tony Manero and Post Mortem — is a movie about the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that accepts and revels in its documentarian limitations. While 30% of the movie is reportedly made up of documentary footage, the fact that Larraín strives to visually match the tone and appearance of fact and fiction does alert audiences to just how composed the film actually is. What Larraín ultimately calls “a strange balance between documentary and fiction” retains a spirit of political activism but definitely doesn’t claim fidelity to its historical context. Rather, No‘s stylistic choices align his new footage with the look and feel of the old ads that the movie itself is about. In doing so, the film simultaneously comments on and indulges in the ways that marketing can ensnare viewers of all kinds, be it in political or artistic fields.

And if it’s possible to take such a penchant for artistic liberties to a whole new level, Larraín made that leap when crafting Neruda. Part biographical drama, part artsy experiment, part satire, and part cat-and-mouse chase, the film should not work as well as it does. Yet Larraín concocts a seamlessly meta and superbly unnerving portrait of ego and perception. Despite being named after the iconic Chilean poet and politician, Neruda is as much about an opposing force — an inspector working to arrest Pablo Neruda — and both men struggle with the dualities of their identities. Moreover, the film references its stylistic borrowings, from film noir and other genre conventions, with enough candor to remain self-aware about its dissections of art and politics. Neruda asks pertinent questions about the myths that we construct for ourselves and the people we idealize but understands its own place in myth-making.

No and Neruda showcase that Larraín picks something stylistically distinctive and can skilfully craft movies around it. Still, at the crux of both efforts is the effervescent García Bernal. The Mozart in the Jungle actor is fully capable of capturing caricature, as evidenced in the rambunctiousness of Rudo y Cursi and Casa de Mi Padre. He is also adept some deeply moving performances. There are far too many titles to name here for extensive reference, but some highlights of García Bernal’s heartrending talents include Amores perros, The Loneliest Planet, and Even the Rain. Each of these movies demonstrates his knack for internalized angst. Such aptitude morphs yet again under Larraín’s deft direction. García Bernal ends up being more toned-down and subtle but delivers undeniably precise portrayals that aren’t void of empathy.

What Larraín and García Bernal could then bring to the masses in a melodrama is potentially fascinating. The filmmaking posits that Ema involves “a lot of music and a lot of scenes where people are basically sharing their feelings,” which is a stark contrast from the icy singularities of the characters in his existing slate. As far as García Bernal is concerned, though, dancing on screen should be no problem. Jon Stewart’s Rosewater made sure of that:

The sky’s the limit when someone is as open to the use of avant-garde techniques as Larraín, while a striking lead performer like García Bernal is the key ingredient that emotionally grounds any unorthodox methods. In this cinematic duo, we unequivocally trust.

Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)