‘Totem’ KVIFF 2023 review: closely observed family drama from Lila Avilés

A young girl takes in the day of her dying father’s birthday party in Totem, a delicately-detailed drama that plays at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after premiering in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. Surprisingly rich and nuanced despite the simplistic premise, this one from director Lila Avilés (The Chambermaid) packs an unexpected punch.

Totem is largely told through the eyes of seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes), who is dropped off by her mother (Iazua Larios) at the family home of her father on his birthday. Dad Tona (Mateo Garcia) is young but dying of cancer, and for the first half of the film, largely an unseen presence to weak to even see his daughter, his messages relayed by nurse Cruz (Teresita Sánchez).

In the absence of her father, Sol spends the day leading up to his party casually observing the richly detailed world around her. Director Avilés cannily fills the film with observant peculiarities that recreate the childlike wonder of experiencing the world for the very first time, and include both the boredom and intrigue of a strange

Therapist grandfather Roberto (Alberto Amador) speaks only through a electrolarynx, but that doesn’t stop him from treating patients in the family home (“expand on that” he tells a woman after an extended monologue). Aunt Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) brings a new age “healer” into the home, who banishes evil spirits in efforts to aid Tona — for a price that probably could have gone towards more practical care.

Harried aunt Nuria (Montserrat Marañon), meanwhile, is busy preparing the house for the party alongside her own young daughter, who playfully helps mom with an electric stimulation machine. Nuria, like her brother Tona, is an artist, and spends hours decorating his cake in the style of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. She’s especially affected by his situation, and uses alcohol

Totem is filled with observant asides and nuanced character detail, bolstered by naturalistic performances that underscore the fact that we are watching real people deal with both their day-to-day reality as well as a family tragedy that has been unfolding in the background.

It hits even harder, then, when we make it to Tona’s birthday party during the final act of Totem: as dozens of others join in on the festivities, Tona himself finally musters the strength to make an appearance. What had previously been an abstract concept – the impending death of this beloved son, brother, husband, and father – is suddenly thrust into the forefront as we celebrate his life.

Amidst a sea of committed performances, Sentíes in her film debut makes the greatest impression in Totem as the young girl about to be robbed of her father who is coming to terms with what that means. Diego Tenorio’s camera carefully observes her expression during a final scene in which she blows out the candles on Tona’s cake, and the impact is unexpectedly heartfelt for a film that has otherwise avoided sentimentality.

Totem is a carefully observant fly-on-the-wall study of a family in a unfortunate situation but going about their everyday lives, and it quietly sneaks up on you. In just her second feature after the highly-regarded The Chambermaid, director Avilés has established herself as one of the most distinctive voices in independent Mexican cinema.

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