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Pablo Larrain's 'Ema' Has A Fiery Title Character


Pablo Larrain's new film "Ema" opens with a crackling fire burning in an urban distance. We learn as the story goes on that it's a traffic light. The title character is obsessed - and I think that's a fair word, by the way - with fire, the flames she fuels in other lives. Larrain's lauded new film stars Mariana di Girolamo and Gael Garcia Bernal. Pablo Larrain, director of the films "Neruda" and "Jackie," joins us now from Santiago, Chile.

Thanks so much for being with us.

PABLO LARRAIN: Thank you. What a pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.

SIMON: Well, it is a pleasure to interview you, but I have to begin by saying it's hard to like your main characters. You must be aware of that.

LARRAIN: (Laughter) Let me ask you, why do you think that, sir?

SIMON: Because they adopt a little boy from Colombia and give him back. And then they say maybe they want him back because, quote, "people look at us in public like we suffocated a dog."

LARRAIN: Do you think that most movies you see are designed for you as an audience to like the character? I say this because I think we are on a culture where the logic of empathy - it's kind of absorbing everything, the necessity of create likeable characters. It's quite important as if we were liking everyone that we meet in our lives. I think reality can be very complex, and I think it's interesting sometimes to make movies that could challenge the audience's idea of empathy and eventually, you know, create a character that has difficulties to create empathy. But through the movie, you get to understand them. And I believe "Ema" tries to do that.

SIMON: I mean, I'm struck. Forgive me for coming back to this. The social worker says, the system is made to cut out people like you.

LARRAIN: Well, yeah because it's people that that come from the world of arts. It's people that has in their lives homosexual relationships. And there's people that could be unfitted for the adoption process. That reality for good has changed lately in my country. But when the movie was made two years ago, that was reality. It was very hard to adopt unless you would fit with certain standards that aren't, you know, the right ones, in my opinion.

SIMON: I thought what the social worker was saying is that the system is made to cut out people like you who seem utterly self-centered.

LARRAIN: Well, yeah, yeah. It is possible. But what she's also saying is that they are quote, unquote, "weird for the system." And the only reason why they allow them to have and asopt children - it was because that children was too old, you know, for the regular standard of adoption. In the world of adoptions, which is very different in each country and society, there is a number of failure adoptions, meaning where they go through a very painful process, that they return the adopted child to the organization where they originally adopted from. And that is around 4% to 7% depending on the country. And we don't really talk about it that much. Sometimes, their child, who cannot be adopted for a number of reasons - and when they grow up, they become orphans forever sometimes. So that was kind of the dramatic implication that we were working with. And that's why the mother of this movie, Ema, does anything that she can to get that boy back to their lives.

SIMON: I don't want to put you in the position of having - I mean, your characters speak for themselves, but I found myself wanting to understand it from the viewpoint of the little boy, Polo, because from his viewpoint, why would he ever want anything to do with this man and woman again? He felt thrown away by them.

LARRAIN: It's wonderful that you say that because movies like this are really determinated (ph) by the viewer. You know, it's you, the audience, in this case, you, Scott, who would finally define, what do you take from the proposition that we are giving? Many, many other people would see differently. I will say, in order to answer your question, is that maybe that boy needed that mother. And maybe it wasn't his destiny. Maybe not.

SIMON: You've done a lot of acclaimed film biographies, "Jackie" and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, "Neruda" and the great Chilean poet. And next year, a lot of excitement about your film about Princess Diana, which I gather is called "Spencer." How do you come up with a way of bringing the audience into something that they think they know already?

LARRAIN: It's really a study of someone's life. It is really a take on someone's moment of the life throughout fiction with trying to work fables. I don't think it's worth making a movie that could show the span of someone's life. I don't think I personally try to deal with something that is bigger than just a few days of that people's life. Otherwise, I'd rather see a documentary, you know, and just a piece of fiction to try to embrace specific ideas and those people and those sort of icons through very, very tiny, tiny moments.

SIMON: Pablo Larrain's new film, "Ema," is out now. Thank you so much, sir, for being with us.

LARRAIN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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