In her sophomore feature film Tótem, Mexican director Lila Avilés invites us into a family home brimming with life, love and the bittersweet pain of impending loss. Like peeking behind a curtain at an intimate moment usually kept private, we become fly-on-the-wall observers as seven-year-old Sol and her relatives gather to celebrate her father Tona’s birthday. But this is no ordinary party – Tona is grievously ill with cancer, thin as a wisp, and the celebration doubles as a loving farewell from his nearest and dearest.
Avilés achieved worldwide acclaim with her 2018 debut The Chambermaid, turning the invisible labor of a hotel worker into powerful cinematic art. Now with Tótem she wields her compassionate lens towards the swirling emotions of family. Naturalistic performances from a talented ensemble cast create an organic intimacy, while Diego Tenorio’s hovering camerawork makes us feel inhabiting the rooms alongside our characters. As their cracks and flaws emerge, so too do grace notes of humor and tenderness.
While heavy with the sorrow of impending loss, a sense of ritual celebration roots Tótem in the resilient bonds of family connection. Avilés has crafted a humane glimpse into private grief, bravely confronting death yet affirming the consolations of love. We may enter as awkward outsiders, but leave feeling embraced as kin.
A Bittersweet Farewell Hidden in a Birthday Bash
The premise seems simple enough – a family reunion to celebrate patriarch Tona’s 27th birthday with laughter, joy and fanfare. But writer-director Lila Avilés has crafted something far more complex in her intimate character piece Tótem.
We enter the tumultuous orbit of seven-year-old Sol, our emotional anchor amidst the frenetic preparations being made by Tona’s relatives. It’s through her curious, innocent eyes that we discover her father Tona is grievously ill with cancer. Bedridden and frail as dried leaves, the once-vibrant artist can barely speak or stir – yet his family races to give him one last perfect birthday, denying the tragedy soon to come.
Tona’s sisters Alejandra and Nuria bustle about the kitchen, bickering like siblings do, faces strained by helplessness. Sol finds comfort from Tona’s kindly nurse Cruz, who shares how much he still cherishes his daughter. Grandfather Roberto glowers from his armchair, barking complaints at the disorder. A magician cousin arrives to do some “energy work” and a teen nephew burrows deeper into his video games.
As the bittersweet celebration swings into full force, emotions come pouring out – warm nostalgia, stifled tensions, furtive hopes. Tona rallies to greet each guest, embracing his final moments to gift his family beautiful memories in return for a lifetime of love. Meanwhile Sol grapples to understand how her father could be present yet absent, near yet unreachable.
In this relatively simple premise of a birthday/goodbye party, Avilés reveals the exquisite anguish of knowing you may lose someone forever. Her tale shows how even in the depths of despair, family ties can uplift us with purpose and joy. By the final shot, she squeezes our hearts with life’s immutable duality – the pain of its fragility and the bliss of its abundance.
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An Intimate Cinematic Embrace
Beyond just telling a good story, Tótem dazzles our senses through meticulous craftsmanship in both its cinematography and production design. Avilés and crew have rendered such organic authenticity, Tótem feels less like watching a movie than eavesdropping on real life.
Cinematographer Diego Tenorio shot the film handheld using a nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio, limiting our scope of vision to evoke Sol’s childlike perspective. His camera stalks the characters in a gentle yet intrusive way, hovering over shoulders and rounding corners to stumble upon private moments. The viewer becomes an honorary member of the family, sucked right into their orbit.
Tenorio’s photography aptly captures the luminous lead performance by young Naíma Sentíes as Sol. With beguiling naturalism, her reactions and thoughtful gazes entrance without overt precociousness. The entire cast interacts with such genuineness and ease, it hardly feels like acting at all.
Production designer Nohemi González likewise stuffed the film’s central home with lived-in details reflecting this family’s messy intimacy—faded furniture, photos stuck with magnets to the fridge, half-read books and overstuffed drawers. Shots sneak glimpses into bedrooms and bathrooms, reinforcing the sense we’re infiltrating a real habitat.
Through editing, Avilés grants equal narrative weight to small talk as emotional eruptions. Just as in actual family gatherings, gentle humor and resonance emerge unexpectedly from the freeflowing conversations. Tótem feels less scripted than captured, like a surveillance reel from the world’s most affectionate police state. The result is a magnificently enveloping experience.
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Navigating the Tangled Web of Family
While Tótem confronts the profound grief of impending loss, the film’s deeper revelations emerge through how its characters relate. We witness the complex push-and-pull of family ties strained by crisis, the generational gaps in processing trauma, and the quiet heroism of showing up for each other when it matters most.
Much of the film explores how young Sol grapples to understand her father’s terminal illness. She misinterprets Tona’s absence as lack of love and rebels through small acts of childhood defiance—stealing her grandfather’s electrolarynx, smuggling snails inside to rescue them. Lucia tries to buffer Sol from the ugly truth through gentle half-explanations. Meanwhile Tona’s sisters split over whether to honor his wish for palliative care or sell all they have to pursue radical treatments.
Avilés suggests coping strategies differ across ages. Sol finds consolation in nurturing small animals—feeling connected to her ill father by caring for other fragile beings. The adults, haunted by past losses, either retreat inward like Roberto or lose themselves in drink and distraction. Yet Cruz the nurse exemplifies Buddhist-like presence, embodying compassion for what is rather than what we wish.
For all their conflicts, what ultimately unites the family is the depth of their love and remembrance. The birthday/goodbye gathering becomes a ritual of commemoration more meaningful than any temple service. Their shared stories and mortal embrace with Tona reaffirm the warmth and meaning he brought them all. However imperfectly, they carry on his vitality through the very mess and noise of their quotidian lives.
Tótem serves as a bittersweet reminder that we cannot freeze time or stall death’s advance. Yet Avilés suggests the temporary communities we forge through hardship can crystallize what matters most. In honoring endings, we consecrate new beginnings and plant seeds of hope for future generations.
A Bittersweet Embrace We Won’t Soon Forget
Since debuting at the Berlin Film Festival, Tótem has earned wide acclaim for its grace and emotional intimacy in tackling profound themes. Critics praised writer-director Lila Avilés for her deft direction of actors, noting this ensemble cast’s stirring naturalism.
As only the second feature under Avilés’ belt, Tótem’s artistry confirms the emergence of an intriguing new cinematic voice. Both her films reveal lives unseen, whether the invisible labor of The Chambermaid’s hotel worker or Tótem’s fly-on-the-wall glimpse into private family grief. Yet beyond merely observation, Avilés infuses her stories with profound compassion.
While Tótem plunges into the dark night of the soul, it retains glimmers of hope and resurrection—the love flowing between little Sol and her dad, or Tona rallying his last ounces of energy to appreciate his final birthday with dear ones. As Avilés provokes tears through her fearless confrontation of death, she also stirs our impulse for life with its kaleidoscope of joy and sorrow ever spinning.
Tótem remains clear-eyed on mortality’s inevitability yet equal in its celebration of vital abundance. Through this family’s imperfect love and solidarity in their shattering trial, Avilés lays bare the ephemeral beauty of what we share in our brief days under the sun. Hers is a bittersweet embrace we won’t soon forget.
A Must-See for the Hungry Heart
Tótem stands out as a drama of rare emotional wisdom, tackling profound themes of grief and mortality with grace and intimacy. Powerfully acted and lovingly crafted, it signals the breakthrough emergence of Lila Avilés as a storyteller of mesmerizing talent.
Beyond just showcasing her fine command of cinematic form, Avilés proven herself a master observer of the human condition – laying bare our cracks and resilience with non-judgmental nuance. Through glimpsing the quiet heroism in a family’s compassion for one another amidst tragedy, Tótem offers the audience spiritual food for our own hungry hearts.
While clearly an artistic triumph and critics’ darling thus far in its festival run, Tótem remains eminently approachable as cinema. Its slice-of-life premise and warm rapport between characters give it a cozy, familiar feel amidst the emotional intensity. Fans of poignant family dramas like Terms of Endearment or This Is Us should add Avilés’ work to their essential watchlist.
For any viewer craving stories conveying emotional authenticity and hard-won wisdom, Tótem comes passionately recommended. Like a bite of bitter tonic that enhances the sweetness of a ripe mango, this film reminds us of life’s dualities – how twilight amplifies the day’s receding glow, and letting go prepares us to receive anew. Tótem is truthful cinema for the soul.
Tótem is a bittersweet triumph - a film radiating compassion while confronting life's hardest truths. Through vividly rendered characters and humanistic storytelling, writer-director Lila Avilés has crafted an emotionally resonant experience highlighting family love and resilience amidst loss. Masterfully acted and photographed with intimate grace, Tótem announces the arrival of a promising new cinematic voice.
- Powerful acting, especially from young lead Naíma Sentíes
- Intimate, compassionate portrayal of family relationships
- Gorgeous, naturalistic cinematography and editing
- Navigates weighty themes skillfully with emotional wisdom
- Strong directorial vision from Lila Avilés
- Slow pacing won't appeal to some viewers
- Story premise may feel too familiar to some
- Ambiguous ending could disappoint those seeking closure