“Tótem” – The spiritual [MOVIE REVIEW]

Naíma Sentíes as Sol. Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films.

Writer/director Lila Avilés has always been intrigued by the chaos of families, especially large Latin American families where boundaries are fluid and views of life are often contradictory. In “Tótem” she tells a story of family as seen through the eyes of seven-year-old Sol. It is a significant day in the life of young Sol as she is dropped off by her mother at the home of her grandfather. This large, chaotic family of brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles are in the midst of preparing a birthday party for Sol’s father Ton. Confused and lost in the morass of her elders, Sol just wants to see her father. She knows he’s ill although everyone, especially her mother, brushes off her concerns. Still, no one will let her see him so she settles into the havoc of the preparations, wandering aimlessly, watching as the adults break into factions, all relating to her missing father.

Her father isn’t missing but he is gone. Dying, each of his sisters and brothers are in different stages of denial as manifested by their actions and whispered discussions. As the children play, the adults each find ways to deal with the oncoming death of Ton. One sister melts down over her failed birthday cake. Cultural differences emerge between the siblings as they discuss what Ton would want and what they should have done. A brother and sister argue over his medical treatment with one saying he should have had chemotherapy and the other saying that what he really needs is morphine, missing the point that the two are not mutually exclusive. Another sister has hired a shaman to come and expiate the evil spirits in the house. Watching the old lady wave a burning broom and exclaim that the house is full to the rooftop of negative energy would be perplexing to anyone but particularly to a child witnessing this for the first time. Barely aware of her father’s illness, the chaos overtaking what is becoming a farewell more than a birthday party gradually burdens her with an inexplicable sadness. 

Mateo Garcia as Tonatiuh and Naíma Sentíes as Sol. Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films

Avila is telling the story of life and death within a microcosm of society as represented by this large family. Presenting all the different views of the adults in terms of their brother’s care illustrates the anarchy present in most loving but divergent families. In some ways, Sol is collateral damage because it will, more than likely, take her a lifetime to unravel the maelstrom she witnessed on that day where her father was the center of attention despite the fact that he was almost completely missing in spirit if not yet in body. Sol sees everything even if she has yet to understand that which is before her. 

Amongst the hustle and bustle, with the adults all smiling and playing with their children, a melancholy permeates the atmosphere. What, Sol might have asked, did her father want? Was it what they wanted? Were they doing this all for him, who they loved dearly, or for themselves to assuage some buried guilt? Occasionally retreating into her own world, Sol is swept up into her own personal society of magical realism. Where is the truth in these actions?

Naíma Sentíes as Sol. Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films.

Avila has written and directed a character piece, a narrative that unwraps over one day but is a reflection of time past and time to come. The story is what you choose to make of it.

Mexico’s submission to the International Academy Awards, it is expertly filmed by Cinematographer Diego Tenorio. The production design by Nohemi Gonzalez is claustrophobic whether indoors or out. The interiors and exteriors become a character as much as any of those who populate them. Mostly, however, “Tótem” is beautifully acted. Young Naíma Sentíes is a revelation as the young Sol. Her wide eyed look speaks both to disbelief and hope. Montserrat Marañon as Aunt Nuria is the best developed of the sisters, aching for her brother and her anticipated loss while trying to support her niece in a positive way. Marisol Gasé as Aunt Alejandra is a counterpoint to Nuria as she tries every spiritual and religious angle, real and bogus, to offset and deny the reality of her brother’s illness. Mateo Garcia as Ton is the little seen brother to Nuria and Alejandro and father to Sol whose appearance settles all arguments about his future, something Sol will spend a lifetime trying to understand. Sometimes what you do in kindness is the cruelest of all.

Avilés was looking for the truth in life, in family as hidden as it sometimes is. For her, Tolstoy expressed it best. “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth but by washing away from it all that is not gold.”

In Spanish with English subtitles.

Opens February 2 at the Laemmle Monica and Laemmle Glendale.



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