Heights Ateneo — The Official Literary and Artistic Publication and Organization of the Ateneo de Manila University

Alchemizing the Filipino Movie: Leonor Will Never Die Review

Rafael Cabrera | Mar 23, 2023

Leonor Will Never Die revels in its messiness. Director-writer Martika Ramirez Escobar and her team concoct the comedic, dramatic, and surreal for a smorgasbord of a film. Premiering in 2022, it is the first in sixteen years to compete in the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize for Innovative Spirit. Leonor Will Never Die has everything—maybe too much—but the ambition the filmmakers lend the movie makes up for the flaws a more clinical palate would nitpick.

Actress Sheila Francisco holds the movie together as Leonor. A film industry veteran or has-been, depending on who’s being asked, Leonor’s days are defined by what she doesn’t do. She doesn’t leave the house, go to work, or pay the electric bills, much to the chagrin of her son Rudie (Bong Cabrera). 

What she does do is watch Filipino action movies of her heyday on repeat. In an act of ghostly intervention, Leonor stumbles upon an advertisement for a screenwriting competition , inspiring her to finish an abandoned screenplay. For Leonor, this is both a means of escaping and engaging with the sorrows of her life. The page on the typewriter is where she really lives: a world of her own making, where heroes right wrongs, wrongdoers fear retribution, and love conquers all. 

It’s a far cry from the real world, where a random arguing couple throws their television out the window—a television that just so happens to land on Leonor’s head. While her body lies comatose in the hospital, Leonor’s mind is transported to the world of her unfinished screenplay. That’s the highlight of the film—watching the discombobulated Leonor navigate the high-octane, guilty-pleasure, mildly sexist cliches of Filipino action films. The protagonist, oiled and sweaty, cradles his brother’s body as he wails into the night, vowing to avenge him. It’s a noble quest, nevermind all the nameless henchmen he implausibly slaughters along the way. And it wouldn’t be complete without love—not just any love, but the love of a sexily virginal stripper damsel-in-distress.

In constructing this world, director-writer Escobar avoids taking cheap shots. She doesn’t need a wisecracking sidekick telling us how ludicrous Leonor’s screenplay is. She simply shows us, with every overdramatic whip pan and zoom. In doing so, Escobar creates a satire of the genre so authentic that one won’t need to have grown up with it to recognize its trademarks. 

The film never stops once it kicks into its high-concept, if slightly confusing, premise (Where is Leonor: Her mind? The TV, cable? Does it even matter?). If anything, it accelerates. The movie now must resolve not only its premise but also a mishmash of subplots. 

In the real world, we get incomplete glimpses into Leonor’s family life. There’s her ex-husband’s campaign for local office, and there’s Rudie’s plan to emigrate to the United States, but there isn’t much tying it to the meat of the story. At multiple points throughout the film, we see the ghost of Leonor’s dead son interacting directly and indirectly with the world. Yet the movie seems content to merely have him wander around the set, never making the rules or reasons behind his existence particularly clear. 

Then there’s the zanier side of things: a doctor who whispers slightly too passionately into Rudie’s ear when Leonor is taken to the hospital, a homeless boy who plays a climactic role in deciding Leonor’s fate, and a young man who goes into labor at Leonor’s hospital (yes, man). All of this is thrown into a blender as the film comments on freedom, creativity, and longevity as an aging worker in a fast-moving industry.

Unfortunately, between these elements, Leonor Will Never Die at times loses sight of Leonor herself. Once she becomes trapped in the movie’s send-up of 80’s and 90’s action movies, Leonor also becomes trapped narratively. Too often, she is left a passive observer of both the events of her life and the scenes of her screenplay, unable to engage with either in a way that would truly give insight into her psyche. Leonor Will Never Die hints at some underlying meaning that would tie its elements together—Leonor’s family drama, her professional and personal regrets, her timid yet spirited hopes for the future—yet never quite succeeds in bringing order to the chaos.

But who's to say it has to? There is confidence in every scene that can only come from the full-bodied commitment of its filmmakers. The audience can nitpick the movie’s inconsistencies, or they can appreciate the excitement it generates in its living, breathing sequences.

Just like its titular heroine, Leonor Will Never Die cannot settle for mediocrity—or anything even approaching ordinariness. Amidst the pressure to conform to what executives think a movie should be—a live-action remake, a cinematic universe tie-in, a rom-com vehicle for yet another love team—Leonor Will Never Die dares to ask what a movie can be. It’s not perfect in its execution, yet it’s certainly not forgettable. 

Written by

Rafael Cabrera

HEIGHTS Online Staffer, 2022-2023

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