Tradition bumps up against modernity in Isaac Cherem’s empathetic drama, Leona, which is playing virtually in movie theatres across the United States.
Cherem’s film unfolds in contemporary Mexico City against the backdrop of a love affair between two young people, Ariela (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) and Ivan (Christian Vasquez), who seem made for each other.
They’re an attractive couple who share common interests and are sexually compatible, but a major problem pulls them apart. Ariela is from the traditional, close-knit and insular Syrian Jewish community, which frowns upon interfaith dating, while Ivan is a Catholic deeply rooted in the Christian traditions and customs of his homeland.
Given their divergent backgrounds, this seems like a doomed relationship. But since other factors are also at play here, Ariela and Ivan may yet overcome their difficulties.
A muralist in her mid-20s, Ariela is secular, modern and open, though she’s still very Jewish. Ivan, hailing from a highly educated liberal family, is much less concerned by this potentially troubling issue. Yet soon after meeting Ariela, he asks, “Are you very Jewish?”
“Normal,” she replies curtly.
Ariela’s friends, having learned she is seeing Ivan, wonder what her mother, Estrella (Carolina Politi), thinks. Estrella, a divorcee who’s close to her daughter, doesn’t have the faintest idea that Ariela and Ivan are dating. Ariela has kept Estrella in the dark, fearing her reaction. Cherem is adept at drawing out this tension, which runs through Leona.
Although Ariela seems to be far more connected to Mexico than most of her Jewish contemporaries, she’s somewhat isolated from mainstream Mexican culture. She has never set foot in typical Mexico City neighborhoods that Ivan knows so well. And she is not accustomed to the non-kosher dishes he savors. In some respects, she’s a stranger in a strange land.
Much of the film is about the efforts of Ariela’s Jewish friends and neighbors to dissuade her from seeing Ivan. A family friend, having urged her to break away from him, says, “Why not a guy from the community?” A rabbi gently implores her to abide by the “rules” of the game and sever her relations with “foreigners.” Her grandmother advises her to “think things through.”
As for Estrella, she is blunt to the point of rudeness. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” she declares in an accusatory tone. Ariela’s father, Simon (Elias Fasja), exudes more understanding, but adds, “At least his name is not Jesus.”
One of Ivan’s friends is skeptical as well. “Why don’t you get a normal girl?” he asks pointedly. It’s a question that cuts to the heart of the matter.
Having argued with Ivan over an issue that exposes her utter lack of courage and resolves, Ariela takes her father’s advice and moves on. She goes out on dates with two Jewish men, but they don’t measure up to her strict standards. Gabriel (Daniel Adissi), another Jewish bachelor, seems more suitable, at least at the beginning.
Ariela and Ivan meet again secretly, but a complicating factor inhibits them from taking their romantic feelings to next level, leaving her emotionally drained and marooned.
Cherem’s competently-crafted film, enhanced by convincing performances from the lead actors, addresses age-old questions that are as pertinent in Jewish communities today as they were in the past. He tries not to be too judgemental, but he portrays Mexico City’s Jews as narrow-minded provincials who cannot and will not adapt to change.