I love the movies. Gosh, I love movies. I love watching them and I love making them.
We should all be so lucky to be able to do what brings us joy, what fulfills us, what helps us to be the person we want to be. To be optimistic for a moment, that’s why many people get into filmmaking because there’s some aspect of cinematic storytelling that inspires them, whether it’s the acting, the writing, the costumes, the special effects, or any other significant part of creation. Not everyone wants to be a star (Babylon’s Manny Torres) or can be (sorry, Pearl), yet we find ourselves drawn to be part of the process somehow — even just examining them incessantly is enough for some (it me). With that in mind, my favorite type of film is one that involves making movies. Some make big swings that audiences weren’t ready for (Last Action Hero), some make bigger swings that divide audiences (Babylon), and some just decide to upend the idea of what a film could be in the process of making it (One Cut of the Dead). Imagine my delight when I discovered Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Leonor Will Never Die during Sundance 2022, a dramedy that plays with the notion of storytelling to the point of overlapping universes and characters that challenge the audience to consider where the movie begins and the *idea* of the movie ends. After a theatrical and digital release in December 2022, Music Box Films is releasing Leonor on home video with nearly an hour’s worth of bonus materials that enable fans to investigate the film straight from the creator herself.
When former writer/director Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) is struck in the head by a falling television set, she wakes to discover she’s in an old script she’d recently begun working on again. There, she becomes entangled in the plight of her lead character, Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), where even her writing cannot save her from potential disaster. On the outside, her son Rudi (Bong Cabrera) works with medical professionals and his father, her ex-husband, to figure out how to wake her up. One theory? Performing her script within earshot may just be what she needs to regain control. Will it work? Can she survive with Ronwaldo long enough to recover and wake up? Only time will tell and it’s running out.
If you’d like to learn about Leonor Will Never Die in a spoiler-free capacity, head over to the initial Sundance 2022 spoiler-free release review. Moving forward, we’ll be getting into everything about this film.
Still here? Alright, let’s go!
Leonor plays on multiple levels. There’s the central story focused on Leonor herself about aging, grief, and one’s passions. Then there’s a secondary story about the way in which the stories we tell, in the real world or within our stories, start to come alive where the real and imagined start to blend. Then there’s the overarching concept where everything we see from opening to closing credits is all imaginary, allowing for anything to happen. Rather than one sacrificing something for the other, each one instead builds upon the other, adding unexpected depth and consequence with each step further into the film. Considering the setup of Leonor as an aged creative who seems a little dotty to her adult son who lives with her, there’s an element to Leonor speaking to the ghost of her dead son that implies the character is not quite *in* the world before the head injury. However, by the end of the film, we realize that the entire production is put together within the intention of keeping Leonor, at least the idea of her, alive, and that means following the script. It’s a meta/multiversal experience that plays even better and with far more melancholy amidst the silliness and hilarity than on a single one. Like another multiverse tale that’s sweeping the 2022 Awards Season, Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), Leonor requires more than one viewing in order to grasp everything that Escobar is going for, the full picture of the story making it more clear why we hear outside voices during the Ronwaldo sequences, why Salumbides breaks out in dance after running down a street in Ronwaldo’s panic (feels a lot like a gag reel when actors start dancing between takes or during setups) thereby breaking the tension and reminding us that Ronwaldo is the illusion. It also raises the question that if Ronwaldo is the illusion and Salumbides is real, is what we see the real Salumbides or just the scripted version of him? Questions like these abound throughout Leonor, some with answers and some that bring up even more cerebral challenges, which is why Leonor is one of my favorite films of 2022 and why I am delighted the home release provides an opportunity for more people to learn about and explore it.
The bonus features on this release are the best kind. They balance basic on-disc features (three kinds of photo galleries and a trailer) with more in-depth and insightful exploration (a feature-length commentary, two featurettes, and Escobar’s prior short film). The photo galleries allow home-viewing audiences to look at still images from the film, behind the scenes making-of images, and the various creative poster designs for the film. Each one is a manual-led gallery, offering a total of 68 different images to go through across the three gallery types. If you didn’t get the sense that the cast and crew had a great time making Leonor, the two featurettes — “A Film That Built Itself” and “Creature Feature”: A Making of Video Journal — will seal that for you. In the first, Escobar sits down for a lengthy interview to discuss everything from the concept, the writing, the casting, the shoot, and the ways COVID-19 shifted the release. It’s delightful to learn that many of the supporting cast (such as those in the plotline of the man pregnant by his boyfriend) are played by members of the crew. The group watching the television in the hospital waiting room where Rudi smashes his head into the set? All crew. Learning that there had always been an idea to have the worlds of the script and real world collide, but that much of the last 30 minutes was added after a first cut was complete because the producer felt there was no third act present is eye-opening considering how intentional that third act feels. We also learn how some of the shots in the theatrical edition of the film were captured as happy accidents where they just decided to have the camera roll while editing and then it ended up being one of the more emotional visual images of the film (the video timeline looking very much like a heartbeat on a hospital monitor or lifeline). By the way, while discussing the multiversal aspects of Leonor, Escobar lightly discusses how that’s an element of her storytelling she’s used before and, luckily for us, her prior short film Pusong Bato is included on the release for us to enjoy.
The second featurette, “Creature Feature,” goes further in-depth on the emotional rollercoaster of the release, especially as the film was struggling to get accepted in various film festivals before Sundance finally said “yes.” Then we get to go along for the ride as Escobar gets the highs of preparing to come to the festival to screen her film and the devastating lows of lockdowns that prevented it. Because it’s a video journal, though heavily edited, it also feels more personal and intimate a learning experience compared to the interview. Between the two featurettes, audiences will come away with way more information than they had before. Of course, if you want all the details on the making of the film, make sure to check out the feature-length commentary track featuring Escobar. Admittedly, it’s the one bonus feature I didn’t explore as I hadn’t seen the film since it’s Sundance 2022 debut and I was too eager to revisit the film itself to even consider putting on the audio commentary to go with it. So that’ll be a lovely surprise for you!
In my role as a film critic, there’s a strange thought that I’m trying to tell you what you should or shouldn’t see. That’s not how I see it. I see my position as someone who should interrogate a work, to explore or identify themes and ideas that creatives present, to be able to explain as best as I can why *I* think the execution does or doesn’t work. At no point do I see it as my job to tell you what you shouldn’t see because, at the end of the day, readers will decide for themselves (just as I will) what films they enjoy and why. But the part that I love, that I really love, is getting to champion films that I love. To try to get them a larger audience, to uplift voices that possess the potential to change the cinematic experience. Leonor Will Never Die is Escobar’s first feature-length project and I haven’t stopped thinking about or talking about it since my initial watch. That, through Music Box Films, others might take the chance and see something new and exciting just jazzes me. I can’t tell you that the film is for everyone, but it’s absolutely for people like me who love movies about making movies and enjoy a good helping of existential examination.
Leonor Will Never Die Special Features:
- Feature Audio Commentary by director Martika Ramirez Escobar (1:39:29)
- “A Film That Built Itself” Interview Featurette with director Martika Ramirez Escobar (23:29)
- “Creature Feature”: A Making of Video Journal (13:52)
- Pusong Bato short film (20:31)
- Twenty (20) Photo Gallery
- Thirty (30) Behind the Scenes Gallery
- Eighteen (18) Artwork Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer (2:09)
Available on digital December 27th, 2022.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD March 14th, 2023.
For more information, head to Music Box Film’s official Leonor Will Never Die webpage.