Sometimes it seems as if streaming TV has taken over from the cinema but these two Latin American titles from the recent Spanish Film festival and now – or about to be – released in cinemas have struck this viewer far more than anything on the small screen this month.

Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal in Ema. Image © Pablo Larraín

Ema, from Chile, and Heroic Losers, from Argentina, are both impressive though in entirely different ways. In Ema’s opening half-hour I wasn’t sure if I actively liked this latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain (Jackie; Neruda) but I couldn’t tear my eyes away, an experience that endured until the very end.

The film’s eponymous protagonist Ema (newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo) is a dancer with a troupe based in the port city of Valparaiso. Her partner Gastón (played by Latin cinema’s most internationally recognised star, Gael García Bernal) is considerably older than her and is also the group’s director. Their partnership is not at a healthy stage, largely due to their painful experience with an adopted child and a dangerous obsession that, it is implied, led to her giving the child back to the authorities. This makes Ema the epitome of a bad mother, in the eyes of her own judgmental mother, among others.

The film starts off with a barrage of striking scenes, from a red traffic light on fire to a figure wrapped in protective garb wielding a flamethrower, to a scene of Ema being comprehensively chewed out by her mother, followed by a sequence of dancers rehearsing in front of a gigantic backdrop of the sun. Fire is everywhere in this film and the miracle is that Larrain doesn’t make it seem overdone.

Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal in Ema. Image © Pablo Larraín

With her peroxide blonde pixie cut, Ema is a striking figure. Di Girolamo’s cool, facially still performance contradicts the hot emotions we know must be on the inside. To process these Ema uses three methods, the first being her dancing in the style known as reggaeton (related to a largely electronic style of popular music with origins in Puerto Rico). The second comes from her fascination with fire (think back to that striking opening shot of the traffic signal), while the third comes from a vigorous sexual drive that leads to her taking both men and women lovers, sometimes all at once.

Though its grimy port-city locations help keep it rooted in realist soil, this is not a conventional film. The imagery, music and dance carries much of the energy and meaning, as does the editing, with its bold juxtapositions. Its modernist sensibility made me suspect Larrain has been spending time watching Jean-Luc Godard films and been inspired by their experimentation with form. Yet he’s come up with something that is unlike any other film from anyone. You may love it or hate it or find yourself conflicted. You probably won’t forget it easily.

The cast of Sebastián Bornstein’s Heroic Losers

Heroic Losers is also an ‘eff-you’ to the establishment, though in a much less cloudy and more easily navigable way. It’s a crime caper, an old and dependable genre, this time with a social conscience. The protagonist Fermin (the wonderful Ricardo Darin, Latin American cinema’s second most internationally recognisable star) is a former local soccer star who plans to open an old industrial site and run it as a co-operative. That is until the country’s 2001 economic crisis hits, and a local banker rips off him and his investors.

Cue the gathering of a collection of local geezers who decide to get even. This may be a familiar formula, but the result is nonetheless funny, ingeniously plotted and with plenty of charm and energy. Credit to the director Sebastián Bornstein, who adapted the script with Eduardo Sacheri from the latter’s novel, The Night of the Heroic Losers.


Ema is in cinemas now while Heroic Losers is in cinemas from 10 June

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