Then and now in Chile

Topics Chile | Weekend Reads

You can tell that the Pablo Larrain’s Ema was scripted off the cuff, day to day. This has prompted people to aim much more praise at the dance drama’s visually mesmerising quality than at the busy, restless narrative. The hallucinogenic frames are what immediately strike one in the Chilean filmmaker’s new experiment but more crucial are the jagged beats of reggaeton, which he deploys to tell this contemporary story about his country.

Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), a young dancer by day and arsonist by night, is in an erratic marriage with a choreographer, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), her senior by at least a decade. They are affected by guilt and a delayed desire to make amends for having sent Polo, a boy they adopted for a year, back into the system. From certain angles, the two appear to represent the yesterday and today of our time, which would mean Polo is the future. Ema’s conceptions of love, fidelity, parenting, family, and politics are quite at odds with Gastón’s.

One of her outlets is in torching public property. The other is in straying from her husband’s more traditional choreography and into reggaeton. To her, this Latin American genre spells “aliveness” or “an orgasm you can dance”, but according to Gastón “it’s prison music” that makes you intellectually numb. Here, the director taps into something very current in Chile, where protests by young citizens are leading to potential reconsideration of the Constitution this year. 

Reggaeton, an underground style that originated in Puerto Rico, claims the imagination of working and middle-class Chilean youths.

The protagonists’ stabbing exchanges are packed into mostly confrontational mid close-ups. Gastón, and for that matter 43-year-old Larrain himself (so modern just a few years ago), feel already obsolete. They assess the youths with some confoundment and equivalent admiration. These are also the responses viewers tend to feel for the film itself, despite (and because of) its haphazard manner. It released on Mubi, where it will stream until the end of May.

Dance, its hypnotic effects, and ageing were at the core of the director’s second film too, Saturday Night Fever. It is set in 1978, when the Hollywood film had gripped Chilean cinemas, and some years into the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Undisturbed by the political shifts ravaging his own neighbourhood, the protagonist Peralta single-mindedly gathers props that mimic the world of his much-younger disco hero. No small comment by Larrain on the role the United States had in the fall of democracy and rise of dictatorship in his country. In the end, Peralta loses to someone with fewer wrinkles. This was the first of the director’s “Pinochet trilogy”, which includes Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012). Scholar Vania Barraza Toledo places these movies in the context of a need among Chileans in the 2000s to engage with their covered-up past.

No was where I first discovered Larrain, while on a mission to watch everything featuring Bernal. It depicts the final years of Pinochet’s rule, mainly how a cheery TV campaign had convinced citizens to partake in the referendum to remove him.

Instead of highlighting his crimes, the ad-man played by Bernal had simply said to vote “No” for future happiness. Post Mortem, Armstrong achieved a muted look apt for the grim moment, shooting with lenses popular in the 1970s.

In plots that are otherwise skilfully immersive, Larrain always leaves in some extraneous, even contrived, sequences that make you come up for air. He searches rather than sermonises. His characters are often morally ambiguous, and capable of the same torturous excesses totalitarian states are guilty of. The type to kill dogs and the elderly with little ado.

But, all things considered, his latest Ema could be his most hopeful story yet. It shows confidence in young people and invites everyone else to join in their infectious movements.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel