An older woman with mussed hair and wearing a housedress holds a hammer and peers through a pipe.

Sundance 2022 Review: “Leonor Will Never Die”

Year: 2022
Runtime: 1 hour 41 minutes
Director: Martika Ramirez Escobar
Writer: Martika Ramirez Escobar
Stars: Sheila Francisco, Bong Cabrera, Anthony Falcon, Alan Bautista, Rocky Salumbides, and Rea Molina
By Valerie Kalfrin

Movie magic literally works its way into the life of a film director in “Leonor Will Never Die,” a touching meditation on grief woven through a fanciful ode to creativity.

Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) used to be a successful action filmmaker in the Philippines. Now, while her career might be dead, her reputation is alive. It keeps the electricity on a little longer when she fails to pay the utility bill—something that frustrates her younger son, Rudy (Bong Cabrera).

Leonor spends her days watching DVDs of pulpy action movies that she buys from a street vendor, stories of working-class guys and beautiful women against tough circumstances, shootouts, and gruesome deaths. She used to write these stories too on an old Smith Corona manual typewriter; now they’re in a trunk in her bedroom. One of the many charms of “Leonor Will Never Die,” which debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, is how she’s enticed to reopen that trunk, dig through her plots and memories, and start writing again.

An older woman wears glasses and a housedress and reads a newspaper while sitting in a rocker in a cozy but cluttered room.
Filmmaker Leonor (Sheila Francisco) thought she’d left making pulpy action films behind her before inspiration strikes in “Leonor Will Never Die” / Photo by Carlos Mauricio

Rudy wants to leave the country and be with his sweetheart, but he worries about his mom being on her own and frets about her wasting money watching movies. She’s hardly alone, though. Her older son, Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon), wanders in and out of the house too—a ghost with a bloodstain from a gunshot wound near his left shoulder.

She talks to ghostly Ronwaldo late at night sometimes. Rudy and his father, Valentin (Alan Bautista), Leonor’s ex-husband and an action star from their films, can see him and talk to him, too.

Writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar (“Living Things”) crafts a low-key film reminiscent of Pedro Almodovar’s imaginative melodramas, such as “Volver,” and metafiction such as “Ruby Sparks” and “Stranger Than Fiction.” Leonor winds up in her own story one day when a neighbor, upset about his girlfriend being engrossed in a soap opera, chucks the TV out the window. The TV strikes Leonor in the head, sending her into a coma and also into the plot of a fictional Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), who falls in love with Isabella (Rea Molina), a dancer trying to escape a gangster obsessed with her.

Meanwhile, Rudy becomes desperate to finish his mother’s script and film, hoping it will help her recover.

Francisco plays Leonor with wide-eyed enthusiasm, watching her story unfold just like the films she’d watch in her housedress and slippers. She’s immensely endearing—an effect she has on her characters, too, with whom she’s surprised she can interact even as she parrots some of their dialogue.

A Filipino man in his 30s with black hair wears a tank top and jeans, carrying pipes and other construction supplies. The image looks at him through a gun sight.
Leonor’s fictional hero Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) is a construction worker with a strong moral compass in “Leonor Will Never Die” / Photo by Carlos Mauricio

Fictional Ronwaldo and Isabella think Leonor is crazy at first, but they soon call her “Grandma” and want to help her find her family. Eager for their own hopeful, happy ending, they also want to believe her when she says she knows they’ll escape their troubles because she wrote them that way.

Ramirez Escobar unfurls several twists, including real-world Ronwaldo’s death, at an engaging pace, and she and cinematographer Carlos Mauricio make the intertwined stories easy to follow. Fictional Ronwaldo’s adventures recreate the low-budget, gritty look of action films from the 1980s, sprinkling in outlandish escapes such as the hero leaping above gunfire. He’s the type of man who stares “at the evils of the world he is ready to fight,” Leonor types in a flourish, whether at her typewriter or with her fingers pecking the air.

The filmmakers blend whimsical yet poignant touches in the real-world scenes too, such as when Rudy watches the imagery from his mother’s MRI shift into different shapes. Where do these violent stories you like come from? he wonders. “I can’t read you, Ma.”

Between the zaniness and humor of the film within a film, Ramirez Escobar adds heartfelt moments, too. At one point, Leonor meets fictional Ronwaldo’s mother, who also grieves the shooting death of a son. Leonor apologizes for “killing” him in her story, peeling back her own trauma, and later giving Rudy a window into reconciling his own complicated feelings.

Some things in life feel unreal, but no one edits our lives, one character notes. We just keep rewriting. An affectionate take on both one woman’s creative life and the power of a good story, “Leonor Will Never Die” is enthralling to the end, where Leonor’s imagination proves immortal.

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