Mariana Di Girólamo

The first film I saw of Pablo Larraín’s was 2008’s Tony Manero, which was about a man whose passion in life was posing as John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, out of Saturday Night Fever.

Larraín’s interest in people pretending to be something they’re not continues in Ema, which also happens to be a film pretending to be something it’s not. Even without the late gotcha moment when both Ema and the film are upended, what we have here is a mix of character study, formal experiment and genre pastiche, served up in two separate visual flavours by DP Sergio Armstrong, his usual gauzy, alienated lighting style punctuated by moments of boiling vital colour. On every level, something is afoot.

Plots usually hold films together but Larraín isn’t interested in that, or doesn’t seem to be at first. He introduces us to Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo), a dancer in a reggaeton troupe run by choreographer Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal), with whom she’s also having a relationship. Had a relationship. It’s falling apart, ever since Ema gave their adopted child back to social services after he set fire to the house.

Larraín spends a lot of time establishing the facts of the adopted Polo case, in scenes with a social worker, Ema’s friends and family but most of all between her and Gastón, lockshot to-and-fros in which each brutally accuses the other of some failure in parenting.

Ema and Gaston betwen arguments
Between arguments: Ema and Gaston

On this firm basis the rest of the film sits, not so much a narrative as a succession of snapshots of no-bullshit Ema careening through life – she is, in effect the New Wave existential hero, a loner, an iconoclast, a libertine and a litmus test for phoniness.

In scenes that are more like stabs, Ema dances, she fucks, she hangs with her friends, she sets fire to things, eventually fucking the fireman who’s come to extinguish a car she’s torched (with napalm, very impressive), she sues for divorce, she fucks the lawyer handling that, and in one heady montage making clear that we fully understand what Ema is about Larraín cuts together sexual encounters between Ema and five or six various partners (don’t well all lose count after about four?).

This is the story of the young woman as free agent. When a headteacher interviewing her for a dance-teacher job asks her what she teaches, Ema declares “Freedom!”

Without going too far into spoiler territory, let’s just say that what you see is not necessarily what you get. This is a Larraín movie – remember El Club, in which all those kindly, animal-loving priests were in fact all disgraced one way or another, and a nun ran their lives with an iron hand? Here, Larraín delivers two highly consequential dramatic twists towards the end – one involving the abandoned Polo – and it’s as if one of those New Wave French films full of pregnant pauses had suddenly been ram-raided by a Brazilian soap opera.

While it’s fascinating to watch Ema, collar up, slouching along like Belmondo, emotional engagement isn’t uppermost in Larraín’s mind, and this film doesn’t deliver massively on that level. Though Girólamo brings Ema to life there’s only so far she can go. This is a character study that isn’t, featuring an existential hero who isn’t, delivered as a mood piece which turns out, in the end, to be all about the plot. Probably worth watching twice.

Ema – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

Rudo y Cursi

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna in Rudo y Cursi


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



16 March


The Wanderers FC win first FA Cup, 1872

Today in 1872, the London football club Wanderers won the first football association cup, the oldest football competition in the world. It was the first of three wins of the cup for the club. The FA Cup is a knockout cup open to all football clubs who are established enough, and with facilities enough, to take part. In 1871-72, being the first season of the cup, there was a piecemeal and eccentric series of regulations – Wanderers managed to get to the final having won only one of their four games because in those days a game ending in a draw resulted in both teams going on to the next round. The final was played at the Kennington Oval, Wanderers’ home ground (and that of Surrey County Cricket team, which it still is) where Wanderers beat the Royal Engineers 1-0. The following year, given a bye all the way to the final as a result of winning the previous year, Wanderers beat Oxford University 2-0. The club’s third and final FA Cup win came at the end of the 1877-78 season when they again beat Royal Engineers. Success was short-lived: the following season Wanderers were knocked out in the first round of the FA Cup; by the 1880-81 season Wanderers were unable to raise a team and so couldn’t compete. By the following year Wanderers had de facto ceased to exist, playing only one ceremonial game each year against Harrow School at Christmas. In 2009 Wanderers were reformed as a charity-raising team and went on to stage a rematch of the 1872 FA Cup Final with Royal Engineers at the Oval in 2012. They lost 7-1.




Rudo y Cursi (2008, dir: Carlos Cuarón)

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna came to international prominence in the 2001 drama Y Tu Mama También and reteam for this footballing drama that also takes smalltown boys on a rites-of-passage journey. The journey in this case is also sex-soaked, but then it’s also dripping in cocaine, drink, beautiful women and all the other trappings of the high life. This being the story of two naturally gifted poor half-brothers on a banana plantation who are spotted by a talent scout who happens to be in the area and then whisked off to Mexico City, where one becomes a striker for one of the city’s teams, the other a goalkeeper for another. One (played by Bernal) winds up with the hottest woman in the country (played by Jessica Mas); the other (Luna) with the biggest cocaine habit. It ends badly for both. As a film Rudo y Cursi is a little schematic in its rise-and-fall dynamic, but as a shorthand for what hits a Beckham, a Messi or a Suarez it tells what must be a true story – of guys out of their depth, suddenly surrounded by everything that money can buy, squads of hangers-on, with only their families to turn to for escape and counsel, who are also clueless and are also entirely swept along in the whirlwind. Rudo and Cursi are ciphers, in other words, and the acting talents of Bernal and Luna are powerless in the face of a script that isn’t interested in fleshing them out. More interesting is the scout Baton – straw hat, grubby shirt, girl on each arm – the ultimate stereotype, though played by Guillermo Francella with loads of guile, charm and intelligence, the bridge between the rural poor and the blinging rich. In a world of widening chasms between rich and poor, the film could be seen as a metaphor for the pay-no-tax entitlement of the super-rich and their “go hang” attitude towards the rest. If it is, it is never overt. Another interesting absence, this time definitely deliberate, is the decision to show no football whatsoever. Even the crucial “it all hangs on this goal” sequence required in all sports movies is conveyed by a series of close-ups of spectators in the stadium, cuts to various locales in the country (bars, mostly). There’s nothing here to frighten the sport-o-phobe.



Why Watch?


  • See what Alfonso Cuarón’s younger director brother can do
  • Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna together again
  • A sports movie without (much) sport
  • Adam Kimmel’s cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Rudo y Cursi – at Amazon





Amores Perros

Gael Garcia Bernal in Amores Perros

The film which announced the rebirth of Mexican cinema in 2000, Amores Perros was adored not just by cinephiles but also those who “don’t do subtitles”. The reasons are many and continue to make it a film worth seeing, or seeing again.

Shot on film which has been deliberately processed in the “wrong” chemical to produce distorted colours and bleached out highlights, it’s got a look which suddenly was everywhere – from hip adverts to films by old-schoolers such as Steven Spielberg (see 2005’s terrorist thriller Munich, for example). The multi-stranded plot which zips backwards and forwards from a pivotal moment – in this case a car crash – is now a Hollywood default for any film which doesn’t have enough plot or character.

Not an accusation to be levelled at Amores Perros. It’s about dogs – fighting dogs – hitmen, crazy love, Latin excess, fertile women, warring brothers, men with fussily trimmed beards. In fact debut director Alejandro González Iñárritu plunders Brazilian soap opera and pumps the cliches (a nod to Tarantino here) to pulp fiction proportions. And let’s not forget that the movie delivered to the world its first big Hispanic star of the new millennium – Gael Garcia Bernal.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Amores Perros – at Amazon