5th Gustavus Latinx Film Festival: Ema, a Woman on Fire Posted on April 23rd, 2021 by


The film “Ema” starts with a fire. Specifically, it begins with the visage of a burning stoplight, and the screen pans out to reveal a woman holding a blowtorch. This woman, Ema, is setting fire to the streets. The film, directed by Juan de Dios Larraín, tells the story of this fire-starter, a dancer living in Valparaíso, Chile. Ema is part of a dance troupe of which her husband is the choreographer. Her life is, in a word, messy. We learn at the beginning of the film that the couple had adopted a son who they had given back to the adoption agency for doing something terrible. This “something terrible” was setting fire to the family’s house, nearly killing Ema’s sister. However, after seeing Ema burning down the stoplight, this doesn’t come as much of a shock. Children learn from the examples their parents set, and in this case, it’s setting fire. Ema, both literally and figuratively, sets fire to everything.

Ema sets fire to the streets in that she wants to dance reggaeton, a style of music and dance that is very popular in Latin America. However, Ema’s choreographer husband sees this as an atrocity — reggaeton is a style seen by many of the older inhabitants of Latin America as vulgar, overly sexualized, and demeaning to women. But Ema sees reggaeton as a way to be free. She sets the fire in her soul free by dancing what she feels and what she loves. Ema feels out of place dancing to her husband’s traditional choreography, so she quits her husband’s troupe and forms a reggaeton troupe with some of the other girls in her old troupe. She sets fire to the traditional Chilean styles of music and dance so that she can rebuild something she identifies Simon 2 with, a style of dance that makes her feel. This is especially significant because Valaparaíso is the cultural capital of Chile. Because Ema makes such dramatic changes in the art scene of such an influential artistic city, she has the potential to change the art scene of all of Chile, and possibly all of Latin America.

Furthermore, Ema sets fire to the idea of having a traditional family. Because of the damage her son, Polo, did to his house and Ema’s sister, and because Ema and her husband gave Polo back to the adoption agency, the adoption agency prevents Ema not only from re-adopting her son but also from having any contact with him whatsoever. However, Ema is desperate to see the son she loves so dearly, so she tracks down Polo and finds out who his new parents are. Ema comes up with a scheme to get her son back that involves her forming sexual relationships with both the new mother and father of her son. She does this without either Polo’s new mother or father knowing, and she only confronts the couple when she becomes her son’s teacher at his school. Ema ends up becoming pregnant with the child of Polo’s new father, which forced Polo’s new parents to keep Ema in their lives, which ensured that Polo would stay in Ema’s life forever. Many would consider this a selfish, childish thing to do. Ema manipulated her way into her son’s life, caused increasing tension in the relationship of his new parents, and more or less made a mess. In this case, Ema’s fire is destructive. But just as a fire that burns down a forest opens pine cones and allows new trees to grow, Ema’s destructive fire allows a new family to blossom.

Furthermore, Ema sets fire to the idea of what a woman should be by exploring her sexuality and taking many sexual partners. Essentially, Ema feels that love should not be reserved for one person, one entity, and that it’s not only acceptable but beautiful to feel love for so many people. Ema has a passion, a fiery passion, for loving others, which she expresses through sexual acts. Through her actions, she shows that it is rather absurd that a woman should Simon 3 be expected to take only one sexual partner in life, especially in Ema’s case, where she was married very young and had so much left to experience. Ema shows that a woman who has sex with more than one partner, with men and women, is just as deserving of love and respect as a woman who chooses to have one or none. Ema shows that, if she were to restrict her sexuality, she’d be restricted from expressing herself, which is what a dancer is supposed to do: express oneself and set fire to the world

Amber Simon ’23


We thank Angelique Dwyer for organizing the 5th Gustavus Latinx Film Festival and to all faculty members who graciously served as panelists for the festival (Suzanne Wilson, Carlos Mejía, Sharon Marquart, Anna Versluis, Marisa Kalbermatten, Marco Cabrera-Geserick, Diego Zavala Scherer, Henry MacCarthy, and Ana Adams). 

We also thank our sponsors for their continuous support: PRAGDA Spanish Film Club Grant awarded by Spain’s Ministry of Culture, the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures; and the Latin American, Latinx and Caribbean Studies Program.


Comments are closed.