Movies are magic. They can transport you to a different place and time, can help you process emotions you didn’t realize you had, or can just be a salve for what ails you. Even the most wild films, the ones that with time and distance from their release make you forget their deeper meaning (Godzilla (1954); Hausu (1977)), the ones that break conventions (Last Action Hero (1993); One Cut of the Dead (2017)), can be just as impactful as the more straight-forward artistic tales. Enter feature film directorial debut of Martika Ramirez Escobar with Leonor Will Never Die, which had its world premiere at Sundance 2022 and is a combination of art and imagination, culminating in the kind of exuberant chaos that only movies can offer.
Former writer/director Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) doesn’t live in a way that reflects her past success. She shares a home with her adult son Rudi (Bong Cabrera), often forgets to pay for the expenses she’s responsible for, and generally is unable to manage her home without her son. Meanwhile, seemingly unbeknownst to her, Rudi is making plans to finally move out on his own, but can’t muster the strength to tell her. Before he can, Leonor is struck in the head, ending up in the hospital in a state the doctor describes as a waking sleep, one she’ll have to choose to awaken from herself. What Rudi, her ex-husband, and the doctor don’t realize is that somehow Leonor has been transported into the story of her unfinished manuscript detailing an ‘80s action drama centered on a hero named Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides).
Leonor isn’t a film one can explain to an unfamiliar audience until it’s been experienced, but we’ll do our best to do Escobar’s fantastic work justice.
If you’re an audience member of a certain age, the general premise of Leonor sounds a bit like the 1991 John Candy comedy Delirious in which he, a soap opera writer, gets hit on the head and wakes to find himself in the show he created. He’s able to manipulate things (up to a point) and wakes from it only when his typewriter is damaged. If one were to look at Leonor through that lens, then, yes, there is a great deal of similarity. Leonor doesn’t just wake to find herself within her script, but she does take advantage of the tale being in her own mind so that she can manipulate things by “dictating” what will happen. This, of course, enables Leonor to get away with certain things that might seem unlikely in any kind of realistic sense, taking full advantage of the kinds of ‘80s action movie logic that made films like Commando (1985), Police Story (1985), Robocop (1987), Bloodsport (1988), and Best of the Best (1989) so much fun. We’re not just talking about a character hiding from bad guys, we’re talking a score that keeps delicately blowing out, a traditional 16:9 aspect ratio, cinematography that captures the grimy appeal of the era, and editing that’s repetitious, skips, and contains awkward cuts. Whenever Leonor is inside the movie of her mind, Escobar demonstrates a clear understanding of that cinematic period, making much of her film a love letter to the era.
Here’s the thing, though. As Escobar takes us further into her film, the language of ‘80s cinema begins to infect the outside world, as well. This isn’t just a gimmick, but a tease of what Leonor is really about: commemoration of memory. Unlike photos, movies capture a voice, a movement, a spirit of a person, cementing who they were in that moment in time. This is why biopics are often found so moving when the cast and script evoke the central figure, calling forth who they were as a person. Thanks to home release boutiques like Vinegar Syndrome, Arrow Video, and Criterion (among many others), films that may have once been lost are being found, restored, and shared with a new generation of audience members. Unless properly destroyed, movies can last, preserving the memory of the physical cast, ideas of the screenwriter(s), and vision of the director(s) in the process. In this regard, the name of Escobar’s film becomes as meta as the narrative itself.
Additionally, amid the gun shots from the baddies and Ronwaldo’s efforts to defeat the evil mayor, Leonor is as much an exploration of how people view their parents, how movies can assist with processing grief, and, perhaps on a more subtextual note, an examination of how audiences tend not to remain quite as aware of female directors as they do their male counterparts. My eldest sees his mother, EoM editor Crystal Davidson, and I as all-knowing, still grappling when, at the very least, Crystal doesn’t know something he wants to know. He doesn’t think about who we were before he existed. He doesn’t know about those lives or see us as the kind of person he is: separate and individual in his own way. Escobar explores this in the conflict between Leonor and Rudie as the two barely talk unless Rudie is lambasting his mother for failing to complete the responsibilities she’s agreed to do. He sees her as incapable of living alone, whereas she thinks he’s afraid to leave, unable to see how she survived before his birth. Then there’s the presence of a ghost portrayed by Anthony Falcon who appears early in the film and is shown talking to various members of the family. Who he is and why he lingers only begins to take true shape just about when the film concludes and his connection to Leonor’s film world reshapes how we engage with it. Don’t take this to mean that Leonor is a sad film; far from it. Though there’s a somber, contemplative tone that runs throughout, it’s mostly due to Francisco’s heartwarming performance that Leonor possesses a warm radiating center around which cinematic chaos flourishes.
Seriously, I wish words could convey just how beautifully Escobar and her team have nailed the look and feel of the period. Escobar’s understanding of, and therefore ability to manipulate, the cinematic language makes Leonor a film which pleasantly draws you in before upturning itself in the most sublime way.
I don’t know what the distribution plans are for Leonor Will Never Die, but I hope it gets the wide release it deserves. It has the capability to snag the attention of global cinephiles in the same way One Cut of the Dead did or Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020) should’ve. Like these two films, Leonor possess a neat DIY feel, except it’s absolutely not and is just as compelling. More so, Leonor doesn’t offer falsehoods about itself, dressing itself up and presenting itself exactly as it is, merely waiting for the audience to realize the story they’re in for. Coming together as a chaotic, glorious, melancholic, joyful celebration of cinema.
Screened during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and was presented with the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Innovative Spirit.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.