Friday, March 26, 2021

Issac Cherem's LEONA holds over for a third week at Boca Raton's Living Room Theaters

If you're looking for a love story or a family drama or a Romeo & Juliet-type tale in which the obstacle to love in not simply a squabble between families but one between religion and "community," then LEONA -- the 2018 Mexican movie that is finally getting a limited nationwide release here in the USA -- just might both be and not quite be your cup of tea. The reason for this duality is that these Leonas -- both the film and its title character (who doesn't acquire that name until the very end) -- refuse to conform to the expectations of the above genres.

The movie's writer/ director, Mexican-born-and-bred Isaac Cherem (shown at right), smartly gives us what we might expect to be the usual routine and then has his heroine, Ariela, sabotage most of what's promising in her family-and-religion-controlled life, as well as in her love life. 

That family is part of the relatively small and apparently very closed community of Syrian Jews residing in Mexico. When Ariela (Naian González Norvind, below, left) meets and then falls in love with a Christian young man, she risks expulsion from both family and community. For whatever reason, though she is honest with her family regarding this relationship, she refuses to tell her boyfriend, Iván (played by the appropriately named Christian Vazquez, below, right) the truth of why he cannot meet her family, or even why she has suddenly moved away from that family and into her own apartment.

Why does Ariela refuse to confide in the fellow she loves? Is it from fear, sheer embarrassment, a combo of both, and/or something more? This is not exactly clear, nor does it need to be, since both her family and her community are portrayed as closed-minded and unreasonable enough to be the major villains of the film. 

These people are haute bourgeois in every negative sense of the phrase: striving, materialistic, better-than, and placing their religion and community above that of even the country in which they live. Most telling, perhaps, is the scene in which one of the high-level players in that community meets with Ariela in order to convince her of the horrors that await if she marries out of the faith. She pleads for assimilation, while her adversary pretty much says, "Never."

Still, we hope for the best for our girl because, after all, Iván and his family (all working in the artistic community, of which Ariela, as a mural-maker, is herself a part) are portrayed as just about the perfect choice to marry into. If the movie comes close to cliche, it is in this no-warts-at-all viewpoint. Even when Iván grows angry, that anger easily bests Ariela's continuing refusal to level with the guy.

In technical terms the movie is beautifully shot and edited, with production values quite high, and performances all at quality level. Leona does offers some other unanswered questions, however: How is Ariela managing to live so well? Does her family continue to support her through all this? (It seems doubtful she could be living this well off of only the income from her art.) Finally, though, choices that have been made cannot be unmade, and while some growth is evident here, and a kind of freedom may be on the horizon, the damage that fundamentalist religion (of any kind) can do to the lives of those involved continues to register as appalling and awful.

From Menemsha Films and running a relatively succinct 96 minutes, Leona opened here in South Florida at our Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton two weeks ago, and has proven popular enough to hold over for a third week starting today, Friday, March 26, while playing elsewhere in the area, too. Click here and scroll down to see all current playdates, cities and theaters.

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