Ema is awfully operatic for a movie about dancing. Her husband is hardly the only person to ostracize her for supposedly abandoning the child she adopted—Ema teaches dance at a grade school (which Polo had attended) and during a meeting her colleagues voice their disdain for her perceived selfishness. In the language of melodrama, Ema is a fallen woman, but she refuses to let that get her down. In what initially appears to be an unraveling, she abandons her job, leaves Gastón, starts setting things on fire, street dances to reggaeton with members of her troupe, begins an affair with the married fireman who responds to one of her conflagrations, seduces a divorce attorney (a woman), and starts fucking basically everyone. If this were madness, one could reasonably say there is a method to it—like everything in this film, the explanation of Ema’s ultimate plan dribbles out slowly. As she tells the fireman (an impossibly hunky Santiago Cabrera): “When you know what I’m doing and why, you will be horrified.” But her behavior is imbued with the sense of liberation—Ema is leaning into the “bad woman” label slapped on her. “Fuck society,” she seems to be saying until the nuances of her plan reveal that she’s out to fuck society...as we know it. It’s hardly a surprise when during an interview for another job at a school late in the movie, Ema is asked what she likes to teach and she responds, “Freedom.” This takes on yet another layer of meaning as things progress, as Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno’s script is an endless font of insights.


Under a slicked-back helmet of dyed blonde hair that’s a mullet’s kissing cousin, Di Girólamo plays Ema with the mystique of the Cheshire cat. She is can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her charismatic, and yet routinely inscrutable. Beyond the general idea of liberation, her motivation for each strategic move is often opaque. We see her saddled with grief for the son that she can no longer take care of, but also willing to plunge herself into situations of mind-clearing hedonism, like a topless lesbian orgy to which she takes her older attorney. A stunning third-reel sequence finds Ema fucking with abandon in a bed with white sheets under a blue light. Every time the scene cuts, she’s depicted with a different sex partner from the pool that she has amassed up to that point—one sex scene, same bed, several bodies. It’s an incredible and economic way to depict how a multi-partner lifestyle functions. Even more impressive—the single best shot in the film, in my opinion—is the image of her riding a bus after fucking the married fireman for the first time. It would be a static shot, if not for the bus’s jostling, and on her face is a completely mystifying look, as her head leans against the window. Her half-shut eyes bespeak fatigue, but her mouth appears to be slightly upturned, almost smug. What is she thinking? Is she happy with the way things are going for her? Does she miss the stability of the life she’s actively torpedoing? Does she even know? Is it all of the above and more?

Di Girólamo is as magnetic as her character. Ema is the kind of personality that you can never know too much about. For as much as she shows, she leaves you wanting more. Her ability to seduce just about everyone she encounters on sight places her in the realm of the femme fatale, but for as fatalistic as she appears, it is her resolve for living that makes her so alluring. In Ema, the phrase “lust for life” is made literal.