Sundance 2022: Film “Leonor Will Never Die” Is a Playful and Sincere Reflection on the Intersection of Art and Life

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls. You can find all the reviews together here.

Sheila Francisco as Leonor in Leonor Will Never Die by Martika Ramirez Escobar. (Carlos Mauricio / Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

I’m not sure what exactly I expected when I sat down to watch Leonor Will Never Die, an entry in the World Cinema Dramatic category at Sundance; the film stems from the Philippines and was written and directed by Martika Ramirez Escobar. To say that I was pleasantly surprised and energized by this unusual action film would be an understatement, one validated by the fact that the film received a Special Jury Award for Innovative Spirit at the end of the festival.

Leonor (Sheila Francisco), a once-famous screenwriter and director now retired and living with her adult son, Rudie, may seem like an unlikely hero. She lives in a rundown apartment and is constantly at risk of having her electricity shut off because she spends her days wrapped up in daydreams and forgets to pay her bills. She often has discussions with the ghost of another son, long deceased, and otherwise spends her time watching crime and action films on her tiny television and imagining scenes from her own unmade films.

Sheila Francisco and Anthony Falcon in Leonor Will Never Die by Martika Ramirez Escobar. (Carlos Mauricio / Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

Galvanized by an ad in the local paper for an upcoming screenplay competition, Leonor decides to revisit her last unfinished script. As she begins to write and revise, a film within the film emerges, intercutting the adventures of Leonor and her fictional hero, Ronwaldo, a young man set on avenging the death of his brother at the hands of a local crime syndicate. Meanwhile, Rudie frets about his mother’s state of mind; he hopes to leave the country soon on a work visa and Leonor’s forgetfulness and distraction worries him deeply.

Then, Leonor is seriously injured in a fluke accident and winds up in the hospital in a coma. As Rudie, friends and neighbors agonize over her care, Leonor finds herself suddenly embedded in the world of her own unfinished film, at first observing and then eventually becoming part of the action as she continues to write and rewrite from within.

The characters embrace Leonor’s sudden appearance, feeling “at ease with” her, although they don’t realize she’s their creator, and try to help the wayward woman navigate this new world, riddled with dangers that she herself has written. In the real world, Rudie busies himself trying to read his mother’s work, hoping that by finishing and producing the film, he might be able to wake Leonor from her coma.  

Still from Leonor Will Never Die by Martika Ramirez Escobar. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute. (Carlos Mauricio / Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

What’s particularly wonderful about Leonor Will Never Die is its seamless, unpretentious blend of fantasy and reality. As Leonor tries to survive her own film, determining the merits of escaping its fiction or remaining embedded in this imperfect world where she gets to be a hero, the film engages in a reflection of the relationship between filmmaking and life that’s philosophical and irreverent in turns.

With its blend of B-movie action scenes, family drama, unexpected humor and playful wit—not to mention the charismatic Leonor herself, a fabulous character so far outside of what we usually envision when we think of action stars—the film manages to be simultaneously introspective, serious, funny, melodramatic and whimsical. Leonor Will Never Die will make you think, in the best possible ways, about the intersection of art and life, the process of writing and editing, and the innovative promise of film.

Editor’s note: Throughout the month of February, Aviva Dove-Viebahn will review 12 films in total from Sundance—six feature films and six documentaries. Explore all the reviews together here.

  1. Framing Agnes
  2. Master
  3. Am I OK?
  4. Tiktok, Boom
  5. Leonor Will Never Die
  6. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
  7. Girl Picture
  8. Calendar Girls
  9. Nanny
  10. Sirens
  11. Call Jane
  12. The Janes

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.