From “Romeo and Juliet” to “Titanic,” “West Side Story,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Notebook,” star-crossed love stories have been a staple of cinema, focusing on romances thwarted by such forces as societal customs, tragedies, cataclysmic events like war or disaster that keep the lovers apart–or separates them permanently by death. While the circumstances in “Leona” aren’t quite as dire, it’s an absorbing drama about a young woman torn between her family and and community on one side and her forbidden relationship, independence, and personal expression on the other.
A talented artist who paints murals on the walls of buildings in Mexico City, Ariela (Naian González Norvind) is a Syrian Jew from an Orthodox family, one that’s eager to marry her off to a suitable man from her community. But she has an instant connection to Ivan (Christian Vázquez), a non-Jewish Latino charmed by her and her mural. The film follows Ariela—whose name is Hebrew for “lioness of God”—as she begins a relationship in secret, risking the wrath of her family and shunning by the community as she struggles between loyalty and asserting herself and following her heart.
Isaac Cherem, also a product of the Syrian Orthodox community in Mexico City, brings his authentic perspective to the film, the first feature he directed. “For previous generations it was important to stay together because as refugees they needed each other for economic reasons and general support. I value myself and my individuality more than a community that suppresses free will,” he said of what he refers to as an insular “self-made ghetto. It wasn’t until I went outside the bubble and started making decisions for myself that I saw how blind I was. I’m glad I could see something else and was able to break out of there.”
He notes that he attended Jewish schools from kindergarten through high school graduation, and grew up fasting on Yom Kippur, going to shul on Rosh Hashanah with his family, but is no longer observant. “It was not what I wanted. But I’m at peace with it now because I know that I can still feel like a Jew without having to observe. Nobody can tell me if I am a Jew or not,” he said.
Cherem concedes that his mother was apprehensive about a film that’s critical of the community she lives in, “But she slowly understood what I was trying to convey.” His father was always the rebellious type who didn’t care what people thought, which gave him license to break away. In the end, “My family supported me and still do,” he said, and although his film did face criticism for the community patriarchy, “I found a lot of women and young people who thought that it was a relatable movie and they were glad this was being spoken about and discussed,” he added. In identifying with its heroine, “It helped them reflect on their lives and how community oppression works and has done so for many years.”
In casting the film, Cherem chose to hire “non-actors but people who are very close to the characters and who could speak their minds” in supporting roles, improvising the dialogue. But Norvind, his leading lady, is an established star from a Mexican family of actors and collaborated with him on the script.
“I initially wanted to be a writer, but my manager started persuading me to try acting when I was around 16 years old. I did my first film at 17 and I haven’t stopped since,” Norvind said. “I do realize now how much choosing this profession has kept me close to my family, but I’m also happy I’m able to make writing a part of my career. I studied literature and have always loved writing so this was my first opportunity to co-write a script and I’ve kept on doing it since.” Her varied acting credits include appearances in American dramas “Blue Bloods” and “Chicago Med.”
“What drew me to ‘Leona’ was first and foremost the conundrum that Ariela is battling with: the difficulty she experiences making a decision for herself, knowing what she wants,” Norvind continued. “I remember telling Isaac after I had read his original version of the script that I loved Ariela’s silences, and I think it’s those silences that moves the action forward. I relate–and I’m sure so many people can as well–to the pains of growing, to the fear of disappointing those you love as you start to choose things for yourself. And ultimately to the uncertainty behind any decision.”
Her biggest challenge, she said, was “to faithfully portray Ariela’s sense of wonder as she starts discovering this new world around her, which is in fact the world she grew up in but with no relationship to it.” Having learned more about herself, she signs her mural ‘Leona’—Spanish for lioness—which reflects her new-found fierceness and independence.
Cherem originally wanted to be an actor and started acting in school plays and enjoyed it, but was concerned about his ability to make a living and support a family. He still acts occasionally, and cast himself in “La Rey de la Fiesta,” a movie he produced. “I have a lot of things to say and I want to write and direct,” he said, noting that he draws influence from French and Korean cinema as much as Hollywood classics and Woody Allen films. He graduated from the Los Angeles Film School in 2011.
During COVID-19 quarantine, Cherem made a documentary about his family, “even though I thought I was done with Jewish-themed movies because it was hard and very deep and I was kind of exhausted by it. But I realized I had to do this because a family secret was revealed to me and I had to explore it,” he said. “It explores similar themes to ‘Leona’ but it’s extremely specific and intimate.” He hopes to premiere it at a festival this year. His next fiction film is a romantic comedy that “explores themes of growing up, making decisions and making a life on your own. That’s what’s surrounding my work now,” he said.
Norvind shot two films last year: “Sexo, Pudor, y Lágrimas 20 Años Después” and “Good Savage,” which tentatively slated for release at the end of this year. She’s also looking forward to the U.S. release of “New Order,” which won the Venice Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. She’s currently in Uruguay, working on a new project for HBO Max. She hopes “Leona” “can spark a conversation not only between people of different cultures but also of different generations, and in doing so remind us how our individuality is just as precious as our ability to be a part of a group.”
Cherem, who views “Leona” as more of a coming of age story than a love story, hopes that it conveys the “overwhelming feeling of uncertainty” of not knowing what’s going to happen.” When he broke away from his community and the life that was expected of him, he felt relief and uncertainty at the same time. “That uncertainty is what the character is trying to understand or cope with,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable to make decisions for oneself, but life is so much better when you do.”
“Leona” is currently playing on VOD and select live theaters nationwide in advance of its streaming premiere on ChaiFlicks.