Taking place over the course of one fraught day, Totém immerses the audience in the world of seven-year-old Sol, as her family prepares for the birthday party of her father, Tona, who is terminally ill. Far from the pristine, sanitized setting of Lila Avilés’ first film – the highly acclaimed 2018 The Chambermaid – Totém revels in the messy, chaotic minutiae of everyday family life.
The film feels much more personal to the director than The Chambermaid did and Avilés has mentioned that it was influenced both by her own childhood and by becoming a mother at a young age, understanding these different nuances of youth. Diego Tenorio’s hazy and warmly lit cinematography adopts a childlike perspective reminiscent of Carla Simón’s Summer 1993. We see fragments of the world in small corners, from beneath tables and within pillow forts. Like Sol, the audience is never allowed to see the whole picture. We piece things together at the same time as Sol, as she comes to terms with the difficult, heart-wrenching truth of her father’s condition.
In the final stages of his illness, this party may be Tona’s last. Quiet, tense scenes of him and his caregiver punctuate the otherwise loud and chaotic frenzy of the house. But while the film acknowledges the messy and all-too-human reality of Tona’s condition, it does not linger in the tragedy of his illness. Rather, it finds joy in the coming together of his family, friends and loved ones to celebrate his life.
With Totém, the macro meets the micro: while it takes place over the course of a single day in the microcosm of the family flat, the themes that emerge concern the wider universe. Intimate familial relationships are interwoven with wider questions of class, cosmology and mortality. While not directly investigating class as Avilés did in The Chambermaid – which highlights the disparities between maids working in a luxury hotel and the clients –, the theme of social and class dynamics crops up again in Totém. Cruz, the nurse who looks after Tona, is a quiet, calming presence amongst the chaos, portrayed as somewhat of a backbone to the family. In spite of this, while Tona’s sister spends money on frivolities and extravagances for the party, Cruz has not been paid for over two weeks. Once again, the film raises the question of who bears the responsibility of care in Mexican society, and how this interacts with socioeconomic status.
In a recent interview with Cineuropa, Avilés said that: ‘to think about death is to think about life.’ Indeed, despite the shadow of death that underpins the film, Totém is full of vitality. While its characters can be messy, drunk, and selfish, they are also brimming with life, warmth, and above all, love for each other. And one of the most engaging things about the film is Avilés’ characterisation: these fully-fleshed characters are embodied wonderfully by the cast, who were chosen in part by The Chambermaid’s lead actress and Avilés’ longtime collaborator, Gabriela Cartol. Newcomer Naima Senties, who plays Sol, particularly stands out.
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This sense of vitality underpinning the film is also reflected in Sol’s relationship to nature. A naturally curious, and inquisitive child, she seeks comfort in animals, whether it be snails, goldfish or crickets. These moments of connection with animals, shot with a slow, lingering camera, provide brief respite from the frenzy of the party preparations.
Totem is a beautifully layered and cinematic film. And while there is a profound melancholy that underpins the story, through Aviles masterful direction and fully-fleshed characters, it’s a film that above all, brims with light and life.
Totem has been selected as the Mexican entry for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards. It is released in UK cinemas by New Wave Films on 1st December.