The World Dramatic slate at this year’s Sundance Film Festival continued with three debut feature films that play with conventions of genre cinema. Martika Ramirez Escobar’s meta fantasy “Leonor Will Never Die” is a love letter to Filipino action cinema, Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s “Utama” uses western tropes to explore the effects of climate change an indigenous Bolivian village, and writer/director Goran Stolevski takes folk horror to the remote mountains of 19th-century Macedonia with “You Won’t Be Alone”.
From its opening homage to cheesy B-action flicks of the 1980s, it’s clear you’re in for a good time with Martika Ramirez Escobar’s breezy fantasy “Leonor Will Never Die.” Once a celebrated action director, Leonor Reyes (a charming Sheila Francisco) is three months behind on the rent for the house she shares with her hapless son Rudy (Bong Cabrera). Leonor abruptly stopped directing after a tragedy on her last film, but remains a cult figure. When she sees a contest for screenplays advertised in the newspaper, she sets out to finish the film. That is, until a couple arguing over the wife’s obsessions with soaps leads to Leonor being hit on the head with a falling TV set, sucking her into the melodramatic world of her own creation.
Francisco is an utter delight as Leonor. The abject joy across her faces as she types the script while imaging the shots in her head is a gift, magnified during the coma sequences as she says the lines in sync with her characters and watches in awe as they play out her scenarios.
Equally enthralling is Anthony Falcon as her other son, cheekily credited as Dead Ronwaldo, the same name as the heroic protagonist (Rocky Salumbides) of her unfinished film. Falcon’s deadpan line delivery is a nice twist on the benevolent ghost trope as Ronwaldo’s spirit guides Leonor towards newfound happiness and scolds his younger brother into taking control of his. In keeping with the film’s meta tone, the VFX for his ghostly appearances is reminiscent of double exposure technique’s common in the silent film era.
While the film within the film is definitely the highlight of this meta-fantasy with its swooning melodrama and kickass fight sequence, Escobar grounds Leonor’s journey in genuine emotions, allowing her to ruminate on grief while rekindling old passions. Packed with self-reflexive humor and a deep reverence for the art of filmmaking, “Leonor Will Never Die” establishes writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar as an artist with a singular voice and bright future in halls of weird cinema.
In the last few years there have been many films about climate change, but rarely has the crisis been addressed as organically—or with quite so many llamas—as in Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s “Utama.” Elderly Quechua couple Virginio (Jose Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe) run a llama ranch, but a year-long drought threatens to upend not only their humble life, but also the existence of their entire village.
There are shades of John Ford and Sergio Leone in the framing of cinematographer Bárbara Alvarez’s painterly shots, evoking their later revisionist films. We meet Virginio as he walks into a golden yellow sun, setting over the rolling hills of Bolivia. His constant heavy breathing clearly indicating that all is not well with the craggy old cowboy. Tensions rise between Virginio and Sisa when their grandson Clever (Santos Choque) arrives from the city, urging them to come and live with him.
Out with the llamas one day, Virginio tells his grandson “These are sacred places.” Unlike the cowboys of classic westerns, Virginio is mourning the loss of a whole culture on the brink of erasure due to climate change migration. Jose Calcina’s melancholic performance reminded me of Mary Twala Mhlongo in “This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection,” another film about loss of a heritage and community that is so intrinsically linked with land.
In perfect harmony with Calcina, Luisa Quispe’s patient Sisa feels as lived as a performance can get. Her stoic face and matter of fact way of talking belie a hidden well of emotions, that come to the surface in striking bursts. Never has a mortar and pestle spoken so loudly.
Meditative and deeply romantic, “Utama” understands that renewal is just as inevitable as death, sometimes hope is a much richer path than despair, and that a home is the life you build with others.
Rooted in folk horror, Goran Stolevski’s “You Won’t Be Alone” opens with shape-shifting witch Maria (Anamaria Marinca) attempting to eat a baby. “A bit of blood. That’s all. A fresh born,” she explains to the child’s panicked mother Yoana (Kamka Tocinovski). A deal is struck. She will raise her child until she is a teenager and then hand her over. Hiding her baby in a cave, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) grows up with no knowledge of the outside world. Maria of course finds the child, transforming her into black-clawed witch like her. The rest of the fable-like story follows Nevena as she learns about life while taking on the identities of others.
To shape-shift, these witches must consume the organs of the next shape it takes. The scar-tissue covered Maria, sometimes choosing a cat, a wild dog, or a stag for her new form. These moments are gruesome and not for the weak of stomach. Despite the detailed hair and makeup styling and Marinca’s dedicated performance, Maria never quite feels as ancient or decrepit as a crone ought to feel.
Nevena’s journey begins when she accidentally kills a mother (Noomi Rapace) and decides to take on her form. Later she tries out being a man (Carloto Cotta), finally, eager to give birth herself, a wife (Alice Englert). Each performer does a great job of seamlessly portraying Nevena, taking in each new experience with the same piercing eyes searching gaze.
However, the filmmaking craft lets the performers down. Often the cinematography is too dark and murky. The score is all over the place, moving from synth to strings to piano without any sort of cohesion. Stolevski’s script has an over-reliance on voice-over that mostly feels like a parody of Terrence Malick.
There is no subversion in Stolevski’s portrayal of crones and maidens, but there’s also no insight into the origins of these tropes either. Nevena’s transformations feel like a cheap surface level knock off of “Orlando.” For a film with this much blood and gore and clear reverence for mothers and motherhood, it left me wondering where the menstrual blood was?
Perhaps a bit too ambitious, ultimately “You Won’t Be Alone” is an intriguing misfire.