Small-screen visibility made actress Mariana Di Girólamo a household name in her native Chile. But while on set taping the final leg of Perdona Nuestros Pecados (Forgive Our Sins), a telenovela where she played a woman infatuated with a priest, she received a WhatsApp message that would alter the course of her career.
The sender was Pablo Larraín, acclaimed director of the Oscar-nominated films Jackie and No. Di Girólamo didn’t recognize the number. He asked about her availability and, without revealing many details, hinted at his interest in casting her for a new project.
It was only when the resulting feature, Ema, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 that the actress learned Larraín had discovered her through a photo in a newspaper article. No audition was required. A single in-person meeting convinced the filmmaker that Di Girólamo was Ema.
“I had only done two very small parts in movies prior to this and I was afraid that I would be stigmatized for being a teleseries actress,” she told The Daily Beast from Santiago. “There are some film directors that are very fussy about that and they don’t want those kinds of faces in their movies.”
Larraín was very clear that he wanted her to cut her long hair very short and dye it blonde. She took the request in stride. “It was symbolic to cut my hair and cut ties with the character I had played for two years and move forward on my path and take on new projects,” Di Girólamo explained.
Aside from the physical transformation, the director didn’t share much insight into the title character of Ema but mentioned that the topics of failed adoptions in the South American country and dance—as a fearless mode of expression—would be integral to the story. No text of any sort was provided, leaving the actress initially to rely on her character’s external traits.
On screen, Ema is a professional dancer whose husband Gastón, played by Mexican star Gael García Bernal, is a successful choreographer. In the wake of a violent incident, the couple decides to return the pre-teen boy they’d adopted, angering everyone around them. Their romance is emotionally toxic, but seemingly unbreakable. At this crossroads, Ema sets a perverse plot in motion to create a new type of family.
With her scorching gaze, the remarkable Di Girólamo seduces without consideration for the damage she may cause. Through dance she releases some of her fury, but at night she prowls the streets of her coastal town of Valparaiso with a blowtorch, incinerating all that’s outdated.
Decoding this uniquely resolute woman required full immersion from Di Girólamo. As part of her physical preparation, she trained with famed choreographer Jose Luis Vidal, the man in charge of the group dance numbers in the film. Her regimen consisted of rehearsals with his company and private sessions with Vidal, in addition to ballet and pilates to improve her posture. She aimed to understand the limits of her body, and more crucially, to look like a seasoned danseuse.
“It’s enviable how much she is connected with her body, with her movement, and how she knows her hypnotic power,” said Di Girólamo. “She’s very conscious of what she provokes in other people, both men and women. It’s kind of beautiful how she affects the lives of these characters who fall in awe of this fire, of this sun that is Ema.”
Without a finished screenplay at the start of principal photography, Ema was a narrative crafted as it was being filmed. Actors would receive pages for their scene the night before shooting or sometimes the day of while in makeup. Di Girólamo confesses that she didn’t truly know how the movie would unfold until she watched the final cut, because Larraín would often shoot two different, opposite versions of the same scene.
“At first that gave me a lot of anxiety, because I came from television where I would sometimes receive 20 episodes before we even started shooting and I knew where my character came from, where she was in the present, and where she was going, and working this way, having no control, was bone-chilling,” she explained. Di Girólamo concentrated on being present and in time found the lack of constraints liberating.
Sequences pointing to Ema’s anti-patriarchy philosophy involve an all-women pack of dancers, and occasional sexual partners, that join in her escapades. Together they move their bodies to sensual rhythms in the streets among the working-class townsfolk. Those scenes reminded Di Girólamo of a group of real-life friends called “Las No Hay Break” (the “There’s No Break” girls) who do graffiti, play music, have drinks, and rage together till dawn without men around. “They are like a very attractive supernova,” she noted.
In Larraín’s fiction, the genre of choice is reggaetón, which causes a schism between Ema and Gastón. The latter, from a classist perspective, sees it as a vulgar display of eroticism. The actress remembers this subject was often a point of contention when presenting the film abroad. Some viewers would cheer at Gastón’s tirade against this musical style. In Chile, however, reggaetón is immensely popular, so much so that Santiago was recently named the “world capital of reggaetón” by music streaming service Spotify. Di Girólamo, for her part, understands some of the arguments against it but considers herself a fan.
“I was part of the reggatón generation. I went to see Daddy Yankee and Don Omar in concert, ‘Duelo de Maestros,’ and I would drop it all the way down on the dance floor. But now new female voices have emerged that speak to women, because in the past many of the lyrics and the music videos objectified us and now there’s no room for that,” she said. “I’m a feminist and I can dance to a song by Daddy Yankee at the club, but I won’t listen to it while I’m studying. It’s a type of music that invites me to dance but that’s it.”
The release of the film in Chile coincided with the country’s social uprising, beginning with the October 2019 protests against the rampant economic inequality and government corruption. In that context, Ema’s destruction of the establishment, setting a traffic light or a bust on fire, took on more potent symbolism. Around this time, Chilean women reinvigorated the fight against sexual violence and femicides across Latin America with “El vilador eres tu” (“The rapist is you”), a powerful performance created by Valparaíso feminist collective Las Tesis. A new order was being forged in and outside the cinema.
“I think Ema would have been at the forefront of those protests. She would have been there wearing goggles and using her blowtorch to burn down institutional buildings,” expressed Di Girólamo. “Or perhaps she would have been doing performance art and being provocative the way she knows how to.”
For Di Girólamo, Ema’s fraught relationship to maternity makes her a beguiling figure—first a parent who couldn’t handle her chosen son and later as a scheming siren unwavering in her desire to bear offspring. Given her identity as a dancer, an anarchist, a dissident, a marginalized individual, a feminist, and a pansexual woman, upholders of the patriarchy wouldn’t see her as an “ideal” mother. But those conventions won’t stop her. Instead of judging her motives and means, the actress admires how in her eyes, men don’t matter. They are simply there to help her achieve her goals.
“Ema will never be satisfied, not even with this family she’s made or even with more children,” Di Girólamo said. “She is voracious, insatiable, and she is probably out there in the world interfering in the lives of others and dancing, which is what she does best.”