Tótem: a dazzling, vibrant child’s-eye view of jubilation and tragedy

Lila Avilés’s latest film is filtered largely through the perspective of a seven-year-old girl who experiences the ups and downs of life in a day with her big and beautiful family.

7 March 2023

By Jessica Kiang

Naíma Sentíes as Sol in Tótem (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

No one grows up in one day; on the other hand, maybe it happens in an instant. Towards the end of Lila Avilés’s exuberantly lovely Tótem, there’s an unearthly moment – made all the eerier in a film otherwise raucous with the rattle of real life – that suggests as much. Seven-year-old Sol (a wonderful Naíma Sentíes) looks up from her father’s blazing birthday cake, suddenly sombre, suddenly still. There are many ways to read it, but Sol’s gaze has a strange and profound effect on our very sense of the film, telescoping all the vitality of this crowded, clattering day into a held breath, like the one you take just before you blow out the candles and discover that not all wishes come true.

The occasion is a party being thrown for Tona (Mateo García Elizondo), Sol’s artist father, who is dying. On the morning of the gathering, after a funny scene in a café restroom that is a perfect snapshot of loving, bohemian parenting, Sol’s theatrical-performer mother Lucia (Iazua Larios) drops her off at the family home where Tona is in the care of his sisters Nuria (Montserrat Marañon) and Alejandra (Marisol Gasé). Also present are Tona’s elderly father Roberto (Alberto Amador), a still-practising psychologist who needs an electronic voicebox to speak, and Tona’s nurse Cruz (a superb Teresita Sánchez, so good in Avilés’s celebrated 2018 debut The Chambermaid and in last year’s Dos Estaciones).

At first, all is clamour and chaos. Nuria has taken on the lion’s share of the organising duties and is now fixated on baking the perfect cake; Roberto is clipping at a bonsai and shooing away the kids in between patient sessions; Alejandra is dyeing her hair, before bringing in a daffy psychic, who rids the home of negative energies by waving a burning bread roll on a stick. More relatives gather, including uncle Napo (Juan Francisco Maldonado) who brings a goldfish as a gift for Sol, adding to the household’s menagerie: all the cats, dogs, birds and insects that, one by one, capture Sol’s attention. There is something miraculous in Avilés’s ability to get children and animals to interact so naturally. One throwaway moment has Nuria’s little daughter Esther (Saori Gurza) squirming about on top of a fridge, playing with the cat while chattering to her mother bustling below – it’s delightful to observe, surely impossible to script. Meanwhile, in a quiet, off-limits part of the house, Tona tries to muster his strength for the evening’s festivities, confiding only to the kind, patient, practical Cruz just how much of a toll the effort is taking.

The choral impression is of liveliness and good humour, but there’s an undertow of sorrow: the collective helplessness of all the people who love Tona knowing they cannot love him back to life. Adults dip down into Sol’s field of vision with expressions bursting with concern. In her earshot, Tona’s siblings speak in a code, such as they might have developed as kids themselves, to prevent her hearing ugly words like ‘chemotherapy’. But they are also often distracted, and Sol has ample time to herself, waiting patiently at dad’s door only to be gently turned away again, observing a cricket walk across the garage floor, perched on the roof while the guests toast her father fondly, and, after one rebuff too many, retreating under a counter where she can cry quietly and ask Siri all the questions no one else will answer.

Sol only cries that once; viewers might not be capable of such restraint. And yet the film is nothing so manipulative as a tearjerker, with Avilés’s exceptional direction keeping sentimentality at bay while still, almost magically, sampling the different flavours of grief that run like currents and crosscurrents between the members of this close-knit, bickering family. Much of this comes from the singular shooting style, with Diego Tenorio’s warm, dynamic camera set deep within the hubbub, but pulling from it dozens of painterly close-ups that have the depth of portraiture. It’s an extraordinarily effective way of communicating Tótem’s unusual take on a family drama in which every character is in close proximity but is also a discrete world – one that will go on turning even after another stops. Perhaps this is the moment that Sol grows up, when she realises, as we all must, that however strong your bonds of affection, there are some ways we will always be alone: everyone’s battered hearts beat and break at different speeds.

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