LEONA, drama, not rated, 94 minutes, in Spanish with subtitles, streaming on Kanopy and Vimeo
In Leona, Ariela chafes against the strictures of her close-knit Syrian Jewish community in Mexico City. She’s a successful muralist, with frequent commissions around town, but all her family cares about are her marriage prospects. Love has nothing to do with it, her grandmother tells her. Ariela (whose name means “lion of God” in Hebrew) is 25 now, and it’s time to let that fantasy go. All that matters is that she marries a Jewish man. But Ariela (Naian González Norvind, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Isaac Cherem) is in love with the handsome and cultured Ivan (Christian Vazquez), a non-Jew she keeps secret from her loved ones.
This superbly acted drama explores fraught questions of loyalty and faith. Can you be true to yourself and still be devoted to a culture that will expel you for breaking its rules? And how can you envision your future when your family’s love is contingent on subverting your own will?
Leona (Spanish for “lioness,”) is reminiscent of the 2020 Netflix limited series Unorthodox, in that the story and performances seem to emerge from the life of an authentic Jewish community, rather than being written and cast in Hollywood. Both Ariela and Unorthodox’s protagonist, Esty, have creative aspirations that they must foster on their own, and they both experience sexual and romantic awakenings that were seemingly off-limits to them before. But, whereas Unorthodox is mainly an exposé of a closed society, Leona is a much earthier, modern story about a young woman caught between several competing forms of love — of her family, her boyfriend, herself, her art, even God.
The art and architecture of Mexico City plays an important supporting role. Ariela often paints in neighborhoods that her family considers unsafe but we see as beautiful and art-filled. There’s an almost freshly washed quality to the film stock in many of the scenes, the cinematography echoing the movie’s themes of rebirth and cleansing (as symbolized in the opening scene at a mikvah, a ritual bath for observant Jewish women). Ariela’s family members live in finely appointed but dark apartments, where shabbat candles provide more light than the sun ever could.
Ariela doesn’t find easy answers to her dilemmas. And her struggle hurts everyone. But her family’s happiness with her actions is ultimately less important to her than her own joy — which is, in turn, less crucial to her than being able to make her art and live with the strength of her new convictions.