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TÓTEM 2023 Movie Review
One of the rare authentic miracles that a film can pull off is to depict the intimate and the seemingly inconsequential, and to do it with absolute naturalness. Mexican writer-director Lila Avilés achieves this feat with elegance and insight in Tótem, her follow-up to much-praised 2018 debut The Chambermaid. While that film set its study of working life amid the chill formality of an upmarket hotel, Tótem embraces chaos and bustle in an ensemble drama of a family living through crisis. This thematically rich piece offers a set of vivid character studies, while musing on life, death and time – largely from a child’s perspective. Understated but emotionally satisfying, Tótem will boost its director’s rising profile; certainly that it sold to multiple territories including the UK and Ireland ahead ot its Berlin Competition debut.
The action spans a single day, and begins in a bathroom where seven-year-old Sol (newcomer Naíma Sentíes) and her mother Lucia (Iazua Larios) are getting ready for a party later; Sol is already wearing her clown wig and is raring to go, but the pair’s moment of exuberant complicity takes a melancholy turn when Sol reveals her wish for the big day: “For Daddy not to die.”
The occasion is the 27th birthday of her father, artist Toniatuh, or Tona (novelist and screenwriter Mateo García Elizondo), who is ill with cancer, and being cared for in his family’s home. There, Sol’s flustered aunt Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) worries about preparations for the party; also present are Alejandra’s sister Nuria (Montserrat Marañon) and her daughter Esther (Saori Gurza), who is younger than Sol; the family’s testy, bonsai-loving patriarch Roberto (Alberto Amador), who speaks using an electrolarynx; and Cruz (Teresita Sánchez), Tona’s carer, whose presence marks her out as the tender, resilient force which is helping them all pull together.
Sol isn’t allowed to see her father, who is reserving his strength for later. She worries about how much Toma loves her, but keeps busy by exploring the house’s enclosed domain, sometimes playing with her cousin, sometimes alone: inspecting various resident animals, including a visiting parakeet; decorating the living room paintings with garden snails; and quizzing a mobile phone about the end of the world. The film displays a wonderfully acute sense of children’s boredom, curiosity and very specific sense of time, the day seeming to run at a completely different speeds for the pensive Sol and the harassed adults around her. Meanwhile, they awkwardly do their best to protect her from the realities that are beginning to dawn on her: in one scene, conversing in a tangled Spanish style of Pig Latin, to disguise their conversation about chemotherapy.
Throughout, Diego Tenorio’s camera explores the corners of this small world, isolating details like an ant caught in a patch of sun and capturing the fluster of ostensibly non-dramatic moments: Lucia treating her daughter with an impromptu ear candle, a cake getting burned, Sol breaking a pot. In a more demonstrative vein, there’s also a delicious left-field interlude, a visit from a jovial, matronly shaman who exorcises the house’s malign spirits with such tools as a breadroll on a stick.
Eventually Tona emerges, to be celebrated by friends and family in a joyous but bittersweet finale, with an old teacher of his turning up to offer wisdom on the nature of time and on Mesoamerican history. This extended final sequence has a more boisterous improvisational-seeming tone than what precedes, but what appears haphazard is underpinned by Avilés’s consistent attention to motifs and themes – notably, the sense of humanity’s place in a larger scheme of cosmic existence, as seen in the animal imagery.
The detail of the family’s profile, meanwhile, is built up through Nohemi González Martínez’s production design, subtly eloquent about their present, past and artistic sensibilities. Other matters are more obliquely conveyed, like the emotional state of play between Sol’s parents, something we come to fathom partly through the girl’s glimpses and overhearings.
The film has a fearless, characterful child lead in first-timer Naíma Sentíes; her interplay with the sparky younger Gurza and with the adults shows Avilés’s skill at nurturing the children’s confidence, the rapport across generations exuding manifest spontaneity and warmth. While it takes some time to fully navigate the network of family ties, we come to trust Sol as our guide to this bustling world, even if she’s not witness to everything that happens. Among the terrific adult ensemble, a familiar face is Teresita Sanchez as Cruz, returning from her support role as the canny hotel worker Minitoy in The Chambermaid and following her lead role as a solitary tequila distiller in 2022’s Dos Estaciones, which won her an award in Sundance. Her tough, knowing tenderness is a particularly strong force here.