‘Corazon de Leon’ (‘Heart of a Lion’): Film Review

Courtesy of Telefe
Quality performances and a script that never forgets the human factor give “Lion” unexpected bite.  

Marcos Carnevale’s little man romance has done big business in Argentina.

Argentina has produced some great offbeat romances over the years, and while Heart of a Lion might not be up there with Juan Jose Campanella’s Son of the Bride, for example, it’s a worthy addition to the roster. Featuring the terrifically watchable comic Guillermo Francella as a 4 foot 6 fella — though not technically a dwarf — who falls for a normal-size woman, on paper the film looks as though it’s lining up for a festival of cheap gags. It is indeed far from perfect, and some scenes are pure schmaltz. But mainly, the film bravely and sure-handedly explores how such an oddball relationship might actually pan out, with all the engaging truthfulness that that suggests. Lion deserves to roam beyond the Latin American territories that are its natural habitat.

Ivana (Julieta Diaz) runs a law firm with her ex, Diego (Mauricio Dayub). She loses her cell phone, and by the end of her first encounter with the guy on the other end, Leon (Francella), she’s been bowled over in a telephonic tour de force of Latino verbal seduction. It also helps that he’s obviously wealthy, and though she’s mildly disconcerted by his height when they meet, she’s soon howling with delight as she parachutes with him out of one of his light aircraft. To the strains of Elvis’ "You Were Always on My Mind" — perhaps an odd choice to celebrate the start of something new — romance blossoms.

The inevitable threats to it come via Ivana’s mother (Nora Carpena), a hypocrite who is rather too schematically dating a deaf mute but disapproves of Ivana’s relationship, as well as from the jealous Diego — but mostly from Ivana’s own inability to fully accept Leon. The reasons for this open up across several searching conversations about discrimination, and it’s in the dialogue, often carefully balanced between the sentimental and the comic, that the film’s at its strongest.

“What hurts you most about being small?” Ivana asks Leon, and the reply, which feels just right, zings back: “my neck.” Another exchange, between Ivana and her brassy, hysterical secretary Corina (Jorgelina Aruzzi), is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Leon’s son Toto (Nicolas Francella, Guillermo’s real-life son, with the same gimlet gaze) is on hand to provide support for his old man.

Inevitably, there are some visual gags, and inevitably they’re contrived, but there aren’t too many. The film’s business is elsewhere, with Leon’s defiant struggle to be seen as worthy of Ivana’s love — though his insecurity is perhaps not altogether justified, since his ex-wife is right up there with Ivana in the attractiveness stakes.

Francella’s alertness to every nuance of what might be happening inside Leon is written all over his ever-smiling face. It makes for a winningly open performance, considerably deepened over the last 20 minutes as things become tougher for him; there’s the sense that Leon’s sometimes forced cheerfulness is the result of emotional disappointments. (Non-Argentinian viewers may recall him from his tremendous performance, heavily disguised, as an alcoholic in Campanella’s Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes.) Diaz, herself a seductive and fresh screen presence, is a lively counterpoint and delivers a similarly committed performance, though sometimes over-theatrical.

There are question marks. It’s unclear, for example, why the scriptwriters wanted to make Leon so wildly successful in all areas except the emotional; his lion’s heart is apparent enough without it. Occasionally there are tawdry reminders of Marcos Carnevale’s less successful and sometimes frankly amateurish earlier work — clunky split-screen techniques, for example, and a tendency to overdo the orchestral strings, particularly over the final minutes.

Then there’s the nagging issue of the film's intended political correctness. If the filmmakers had decided to use a real dwarf for the role rather than a (sometimes technically questionable) CGI-reduced version of one of Argentina’s biggest comedy stars, then both the effect — and probably the box-office prospects — would have been completely different. Ultimately, this is a feel-good fantasy in which sweeping aerial shots of Copacabana Beach also have their part to play (presumably the result of co-production money).

The Leon/Lion pun in the Spanish title emphasizes the protagonist’s against-the-odds determination to beat his condition in a way that the English title can’t.

Production companies: Telefe, Argentina Sono Film, Patagonik, Unfinished Business
Cast: Guillermo Francella, Julieta Diaz, Jorgelina Aruzzi, Nora Carpena, Nicolas Francella, Mauricio Dayub,
Director-screenwriter: Marcos Carnevale
Producers: Victoria Aizenstat, Ines Vera
Director of photography: Horacio Maira
Production designer: Mariana Sourrouille
Costume designer: Julio Suarez
Editor: Ariel Frajnd
Composer: Emilio Kauderer
No rating, 98 minutes