The blurring of movie and reality is perhaps a universal phenomenon. Hollywood stars parlay their heroic brands into branding deals, turn personae into politics. From Ronald Reagan to the Philippines’ Joseph Estrada, world leaders of dubious ability have taken power through their connection to and channeling of particular sensations derived from the movies: Nostalgia, familiarity, control, a sense that everything will work out because it all goes according to a script we know by heart. Writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar examines this transdimensional link—the kind of thing fascinating filmmaking since Sherlock, Jr. and continuing on through movies like John Candy’s Delirious—in Leonor Will Never Die, a surreal and bittersweet look at life and death through a screenwriter’s teleportation into one of her own B-grade action scripts.
Before getting sucked into her own hammer-slinging, rifle-blasting schlockfest, Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) lived with her son Rudy (Bong Cabrera) in a home always supplied with the latest movies and always in danger of getting the power cut off. The faded filmmaker is loving and forgetful, unappreciated by her son and more alone than she looks. Her trunk full of unmade scripts is now little more than an apple box. It’s a familiar if not particularly enviable life for an elderly person, and one that few have the power or wealth to avoid. But Leonor has a creative spark that allows her to get herself out—even if it confuses and frightens those that love her.
Leonor gets bonked on the head by a TV, Looney Tunes style, and wakes up in the script she recently revisited after a burst of inspiration. It’s the ‘80s. The hair is big and the tank tops are tight. Tables break on impact and henchmen die in a single punch. But Leonor’s movie about beefcake Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) sticking it to a local thug and saving the girl is subsumed by melancholy. The real Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon), Leonor’s son who died in an accident disturbingly similar to the one that claimed the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust last year, doesn’t just haunt their family but takes an active role despite his incorporeal state. Rudy, now confronting his mother’s death, desperately chats with her comatose body at the hospital.
Escobar juggles these tones and styles with warm respect, never pointing and laughing at her own over-the-top situations. Aside from the aesthetically particular action movie antics, Leonor Will Never Die contains more hazy surrealism, channeling the slow magic of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. People drink with Reyes’ ghostly son. She explains a dream about riding a giant snail. The TV news reports on a National Enquirer-esque pregnant man. The world is just as strange as the movies where a single blow replays bam-bam-BAM for emphasis. Movies—especially by-the-numbers genre movies—are not dreams, but life within our control.
Francisco gambols around the bar fights and love scenes in her floral dress, the unassuming god of this world, as respected and beloved in it as she is underestimated and resented in her real life. In a movie of her own writing, the tropes are familiar but comforting because they’re predictable. They make sense. She knows all the cheesy dialogue and understands that her hero will win his fight scenes. She plays it all with an impish glee, a cheeky grin plastered onto a grieving face. Her nuanced performance makes some of the larger themes clear—things like a desire for autonomy in old age—without a need for the pleasingly nebulous script to hit us with them again and again.
As wacky as it all sounds (and there are certainly punchlines to appreciate), Escobar’s creation can be shockingly moving. The world’s weird magic cannot replace the power of the movies, which ties the community together and allows for greater truths in its metafictional terrarium than in reality’s mundanity. Big meaty questions, like what responsibilities we have to our creations—whether fictional or flesh and blood—come up in the silliest ways. The camera zooms out as Action Ronwaldo ends a fruitless chase in an empty street. What does he do with himself? With his emotions? Whose subconscious is he channeling and how long will it be before introspection bears out his next move?
These questions are routinely abandoned by Escobar, just as she injects a formal gamble reminiscent of the fantastic and similarly flippant/morbid Dick Johnson Is Dead into her ending. The filmmaking process is mined for its planning, its uncertainty and the hyperreal spontaneity that sparks when the two meet. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s strange and of a piece with the rest of her debut. Why wouldn’t she appear in her own film, just as Leonor directs the muscles and guns of Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago? We are culpable for our creations, even if they don’t and shouldn’t define us. As Escobar appreciates this fact, sometimes more wildly than even her ambitious helmsmanship can handle, Leonor Will Never Die considers that perhaps the best way to bold the line between movies and reality is to cross it more intentionally.
Director: Martika Ramirez Escobar
Writers: Martika Ramirez Escobar
Stars: Sheila Francisco, Bong Cabrera, Rocky Salumbides, Anthony Falcon
Release Date: January 21, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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