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Movie Review: LEONA

This week for “Close-Up with Camenker”,  Zach reviews . . . LEONA! (June 18, 2021)

Click here for the blurb and viewing link of LEONA!

One of the films that had been scheduled for the 2020 New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival before it went virtual was Isaac Cherem’s critically acclaimed 2018 drama LEONA, which is now streaming in Red River Theatres’ Virtual Cinema. 

The story of a 25-year-old Jewish woman named Ariela who lives in Mexico City, LEONA depicts Ariela’s budding romance with a non-Jewish man despite objections from her parents and family. An all too familiar narrative for many people with interfaith relationships, the film is only 94 minutes but is packed with raw emotion and endless tension.

One major perk that I have always associated with the New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival, which I have been a part of for three years now, is the chance to see stories from other places in the diaspora that we in the United States may otherwise know very little about. LEONA, taking place in a neighborhood in Mexico with a lot of Jewish families, is no exception. I previously screened it prior to the Festival in the fall of 2019 and learned a great deal about the Jewish culture in Mexico. A second time around, I picked up on other pieces that I had previously missed, which is a gift that any film should be proud of.

The depiction of Mexican Jewish life in LEONA is one of its greatest strengths. In viewing it, one can certainly make comparisons and contrasts between American Jewish life, which ultimately leads to some great conversation and deeper thinking. 

The film’s two greatest strengths, however, are its use of themes and its performances.

Without giving anything away, the film’s title has a major significance that unfolds toward the final act. It is noteworthy in that when the film ends on striking grounds, you cannot help but backtrack to previous moments in which the title lines up with the themes and messages.

Additionally, certain elements of Judaism resonate deeply as thematic material with intentional placement throughout the piece. Some of the films that we screen and show at the Festival offer a small amount of Jewish themes while others offer a lot. LEONA offers the perfect balance, embedding the themes at various places, including the beginning scene which takes place at a mikvah, several scenes at Ariela’s grandmother’s home for Shabbat, and both casual and intense conversations surrounding Ariela’s religion. The ultimate realization that her boyfriend Ivan’s non-Jewish religion is going to be an issue for her family is heartbreaking.

Naian González Norvind’s portrayal of Ariela is superb. She offers a range of emotions and while she has some especially tense scenes, she never overacts or chews the scenery. This fits the persona of her character very well and allows us to see a sense of realism in the character of Ariela. 

While the supporting cast is quite strong all around, the film delivers two other very strong female performances from Carolina Politi, who plays Ariela’s mother, a woman on her own search for the right man following her divorce from Ariela’s father, as well as Margarita Sanz, who plays Ariela’s grandmother. Sanz, who lives up to the adage of “there are no small parts, only small actors,” particularly stands out in how she showcases her endearing relationship with her granddaughter, as well as how she relays her own life experiences to Ariela. 

A second time around, I found LEONA even more engaging and provocative. It is a generally well made film that leaves you thinking and manages to pack quite a bit into its short running time. My one complaint is that there are a lot of characters to keep track of, many of whom are undeveloped and/or fall flat by the final act. The strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, though, and the film is certainly worthy of your viewing.

Kudos to Red River for showing LEONA and being such a long-standing partner with the New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival, which just finished its 2021 Virtual Series on June 10. Red River has done so much for this major statewide cultural event each year since its inception and I hope fans of the Festival will do their part to support Red River in return!


Stay tuned for Volume XV, which will appear on Friday, July 2. Next film to be determined.

Click here to learn more about Zach Camenker!

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