“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” we’re told. But how does this adage apply to the last quarter of our lives when we are no longer working? Do we give up what we love as easily as we leave the workday at 5pm? Can a person really quit their job when that job is also their lifeblood? This is the dilemma faced by the title character in Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Leonor Never Dies.
Written and directed by Escobar, this surreal and avant-garde comedy follows Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco), a once prominent figure in the Philippine action film industry, who is, to her dismay, retired. Now in her sunset years, Leonor is grieving not only the loss of her livelihood, but also her late son Ronwald (Anthony Falcon), whose frequent sojourns in the mortal realm help blur the lines between reality and fiction, the living and the dead in the world. movie. Ronwaldo is also the namesake and inspiration for the main character in Leonora’s abandoned action script “Return of the Kwag”.
Leonora’s relationship with her living son Rudi (Bong Cabrera) is no better. The two are seen bickering after Leonor fails to pay her utility bill for the third month and squanders the family’s already dwindling funds on an action DVD. Rudie accuses his mother of trying to relive the bygone glory days. “I don’t understand mom anymore,” he confides to his friend. “He knows every new show but can’t remember how to pay the electricity.” The elderly woman may be a spendthrift, but her reckless purchases also testify to the author’s desperate desire to return to his art. The DVDs provide her with more than an idle escape: Leonor has a story to tell, and she’s eager to finish it.
Picking up where she left off with “Kwago,” she digs the incomplete script out of the coffin, a dusty box of forgotten mementos. However, after some satisfactory writing, Leonor is suddenly hit in the head by a falling television and is put into a coma. Leonor is then transported into her own scenario. Inside “Kwago” she is simultaneously player, spectator and author in her own film. Leonor lives every writer’s dream: to touch, feel and living in a universe of her own invention.
Meanwhile, in the waking realm, Dr. Rudie says that Leonor is in hypnagogia and is advised to talk to her mother to help her wake up. He gets the idea to produce Leonora’s script, wishing her to come back to consciousness. However, the more he reads the script, the less he understands his own mother. “Where did it all come from, Mom?” Rudie asks Leonor at her bedside. “I can’t see through you mom. You better talk to the characters in the script.’
It’s true that every important person in Leonora’s life has a corresponding avatar in “Kwago,” which has effectively become a space for the screenwriter to process and confront the traumas that have marked her life. We see Leonor empathize with the bereaved mother—her fictional counterpart—who has also lost a son, and apologize to the character for writing such suffering into her arc. “I didn’t know what to do,” Leonor tells the woman, recalling how Ronwaldo died. “It was like a movie.
Escobar told us that “Leonor will never die” is a manifestation of the idea that “we all live in our own movies”. We see this sentiment expressed in the film’s experimental and self-reflexive narrative, where the fourth wall is often broken: the audience becomes interested in the post-production process and Escobar’s own creative decisions as we see how her ideas are guided by her colleagues. As the director emphasized, “Leonor Never Dies” is “about how I see life as one long film that we keep writing and revising until it’s finished.” Viewers ask which elements of the film are part of the story and which are paratextual – observe these distinctions mass as long as we enjoy the movie?
“Leonor” is an entity with many meanings: Leonor the comatose mother, Leonor the tenacious artist, Leonor the character, brilliantly portrayed by Francisco. Is the Leonor we see on screen in the movie “Kwago” a figment of the retired screenwriter’s own imagination? Or is it the embodiment of it Memory, preserved by surviving members of Leonora’s family? “Leonor Never Dies” reminds us of the unique ability of fiction to transcend the restrictive laws of reality. Even if the falling TV turns out to be fatal, Leonor never really dies. As long as there is a viewer on the other side of the screen, they don’t have to.
“Leonor Never Dies” opens in theaters on November 25. It premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and won the World Cinema Dramatic: Innovative Spirit Special Jury Award.