TIFF Review: “Leonor Will Never Die”

Toronto International Film Festival Canadian premiere and Midnight Madness closing night film.

There’s an indelible charm to 80s action movies, whether they’re good, bad, or as is often the case, so bad they’re good. Beyond the glorification of violence and celebration of masculinity at its most macho, the action is frequently creatively realized (particularly in lower budget movies), the villains are deliciously sinister, and the memorable one-liners come as fast as the punches. Think well-known Hollywood hits like “Predator,” “Die Hard,” and “The Terminator” that retain a leanness and grit despite their pedigree, but also low-budget rarities; for instance, I just watched 1987’s “Miami Connection” for the first time, a technically bad film that features all those traits in spades, but that is also so sincere it sort of accidentally becomes a good film. In her wholly unique feature film debut, “Leonor Will Never Die,” writer and director Martika Ramirez draws on her memories of similarly over-the-top Filipino action movies from this era, but frames them from an unexpected perspective: that of a kindly elderly woman, Leonor (Sheila Francisco).

Years ago, Leonor was actually a celebrated director of Filipino action movies. She’s still so well known, in fact, that when a bill collector stops by from the electric company, he recognizes her name on the invoice and enthusiastically declares himself a fan to Leonor’s less-than-enthusiastic adult son, Rudie (Bong Cabrera). But there’s the rub: despite her previous success, the aging Leonor hasn’t worked in years, and now struggles to pay the bills. In fact, much to Rudie’s frustration, she struggles just to remember to pay the bills. However, her brain is still on the movies, and when she glimpses an advertisement looking for screenplays, she begins working on one of her unfinished scripts, centering around a man called Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) who sets out to avenge his brother’s death. But her writing takes a surreal turn when, while sitting outside her home plucking away at her typewriter, Leonor is whacked in the head by a falling television, sending her body into a coma and her brain into the world of her screenplay.

Sheila Francisco in “Leonor Will Never Die”; image courtesy of TIFF

Escobar, production designer Eero Francisco, and cinematographer Carlos Mauricio do a remarkable job recreating a vintage 80s action movie aesthetic for the dream scenes, both delineating between the scenes set in Leonor’s head and the scenes set in the real world, as Rudie tries to figure out how to wake up his mom, and crafting a loving tribute to the films of that era. The way Leonor, a sweet and unassuming old woman, inserts herself into Ronwaldo’s revenge plot and budding relationship with a cabaret dancer caught up in it is amusing, but Escobar cleverly takes that premise to a whole other level by using it as a device to help unite the estranged mother and son. While Leonor tries to find the ending to her movie within her head, on the outside, Rudie attempts to complete her unfinished screenplay in the hopes that her enthusiasm for it will bring her back. Leonor parallels her own life story with that of her protagonist in more ways than one; while Ronwaldo seeks resolution for the murder of his brother, Leonor seeks a path to make some peace with a tragic part of her past. Escobar further draws on her own heritage and belief that we can talk to spirits with the matter-of-fact inclusion of a ghost of a character who other living characters are able to converse with, adding another fantastical layer to the story that helps establish Leonor’s history.

Sheila Francisco, a storied Filipina stage actress who has her first lead role in a movie with “Leonor Never Dies,” is absolutely the film’s beating heart, turning in a performance that highlights her character’s resilience and sense of humor and fun, but also the ways in which her family life pain her. Early in the movie, we watch her break down in tears at least a couple of times after she overhears Rudie airing his irritation over her ability to remember movies but not to do simple tasks, and the fact that he plans to move away from her and their town. But by flipping between him and Leonor, Escobar also creates empathy for Rudie and his situation, caught between the love he truly does possess for his mother, and his inability to lead his own life because of her.

Bong Cabrera as Rudy in “Leonor Will Never Die”; image courtesy of TIFF

Escobar further ties filmmaking and family together by inserting herself and editor Lawrence Ang into the movie, playing themselves and questioning how to end the movie. It’s probably about the most perfect that an ending can be for a film that parallels art with life. There’s no simple resolution for Leonor and Rudie, but a lovely finale emerges from the tangle of family strife and gonzo B movie tropes. Emotionally eviscerating and endlessly entertaining, “Leonor Never Dies” firmly cements Escobar as an exciting new voice in cinema.

Runtime: 99 minutes.

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