Living Up to Its Title, “Empathy” Offers a Compassionate Study of a Sex Worker


A hybrid documentary distinguished by emotional tenderness and compositional elegance, Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s Empathy presents fragments from the life of Em Cominotti, a queer sex worker caught at a series of existential in-between junctures. (Cominotti, who appears in every scene, shares a story credit with Rovinelli, and is also listed as a co-producer. The title refers to the word she has tattooed just below her belly button.) Em is recovering from a heroin addiction: She speaks of coming off “four months of opiates” and, before one appointment with a client, applies makeup to the inside of her arm to obscure track marks. Em is also somewhat geographically indeterminate: Early portions of the movie show her crashing at an apartment off the L train stop at DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, awakening under the sheets to bubbler hits offered by her French press–brewing roommate, but she also makes regular ventures to Pittsburgh, where she grew up (“the white hood” is how she describes her roots). Rovinelli unfolds Em’s daily comings and goings in long takes with minimal camera movement, capturing all the action with an intelligent mixture of high-definition digital video and Super 16mm — the latter put to especially vibrant use in the wintry landscape photography, as with the opening slow pan right across a snow-cloaked rooftop sunrise.

Vocational specifics edge into Empathy: Brief dialogue explains that “an overnight” brings in $3,000; there’s also a ten-minute-plus scene that proceeds calmly through the stages of one of Em’s appointments, from menial small talk at the windowsill to more romantic verbiage (Em strokes the man’s arm as he reads her Shakespearean sonnets in bed) to the act of sex itself. But this is less a behind-the-curtain doc about escorting than an intimate-access story of work and life. Rovinelli shows Em packing suitcases, brushing her teeth, taking showers, getting on the subway, napping on a bus, smoking alone on a bench, eating Taco Bell; the emphasis is on hours and days, minutes and nights, and the occasional glints of fleeting grace that materialize out of thin air — as with the extended closing shot, which sits in the backseat of a convertible taking off from Mulholland Drive, Em’s hair billowing in the California breeze as the camera permits us to read her alternately contented and dazzled face. (Here, Rovinelli achieves something of the grandeur of the car shots in recent Terrence Malick.)

Emotionally, the movie builds to a monologue that Em delivers from bed to her laptop webcam, though whether she’s addressing herself, or an interlocutor on the other end, remains unclear. This is one of the few passages in Empathy where Rovinelli frames Em in close-up. She talks of Suboxone and “pinned-out” pupils and the “Shakespeare guy” and not being able to “hit my veins anymore”; she is relating a narrative for a camera inside a camera, and yet, in the closeness of the raw HD lens, and the relaxed lucidity of Em’s cadences, there develops the impression of a genuine catharsis — one of many such humane mini-moments that populate this gentle sketch of an American margin.

Directed by Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli
Opens December 15, Anthology Film Archives