Leonor Will Never Die is an enjoyably oddball and whimsical ode to cinematic escapism: Sundance Film Festival Review

Leonor Will Never Die tells the story of its titular character Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco), a once successful screenwriter in the Filipino film industry. Now, she is an aging mother who is struggling to keep her household in check. Desperately trying to recapture past glories as a path to escapism, she discovers a newspaper advertisement that is looming for screenplays.

She begins looking through her old belongings and find an unfinished script about a revenge story involving the handsome and brave Ronwaldo who is seeking vengeance for his brother’s death against a pack of menacing thugs. But things get strange for Leonor when a freak accident involving a television takes her into a coma. Trapped in her world of imagination, the film becomes blurred with fact and fiction, dreams and memories – filtered through the action cinema that Leonor was a huge part of.

Leonor Will Never Die is the feature-length film debut from writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar. Most of her prior work to becoming a director has been in the field of cinematography; which explains how striking the presentation of the film is.

The real-life segments of the story are told with a level of murkiness and sterility that is appropriately off-putting. While the film segments of the story, which are based on ‘80s Fillipino action films, are fantastically staged. The synthesizer music, the cheesy acting, the chintzy drama, the numerous zooms, the VHS fuzzy look, the 4:3 ratio and the monoaural sound – all of it is enacted to visual perfection.

There are some amusingly off-kilter moments that add lots of levity and oddball weirdness to the story. One major example involves a spectral figure that manages to exist in the company of our characters like it is seemingly no big deal. Other examples include how Leonor mouths line of dialogue uttered by characters that she had created or when characters become aware of the position of the story they are in and comment on where the story would go out loud.

But it isn’t all fun and games as Escobar uses the cinematic re-creations as a backdrop to tell a story about a disintegrating family. Driven apart by a death in the family, the characters honour Leonor by recreating her unfinished script while she comes to terms with her son’s death through her imagination. The pacing is quite slow and it makes its tone shifts feel blatant. That makes the film’s attempt at pathos quite distracting and hinders the escalation from levity to whimsy to tragedy.

However, the film is grounded by the great work by Sheila Francisco. Embodying the character of Leonor, Francisco manages to convey the optimism and the world-weariness with bubbly charisma and an understated resolve; making it easy for the audience to sympathise and root for her.

Overall, Leonor Will Never Die transcends over its stodgy pacing and abrupt tone shifts by providing a heartwarming and loopy experience; propelled by strong cine-literate visuals, a fun nostalgic premise and a fantastic performance by Sheila Francisco.

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THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Leonor Will Never Die is screening as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is being presented virtually between January 20th and 30th, 2022.  For more information head to the official Sundance page.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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