Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"The idea of different things being in and out of focus for the various generations runs through a film that has sweetly comic moments and poignancy in equal measure." | Photo: Limerencia

On the face of it, Lila Avilés' second film doesn’t have much in common with her first - but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find some of the same DNA. The Chambermaid was set within a hotel, with its crisp white bed sheets, daily routines and pecking order, not to mention the negative space that was negotiated by cleaner Eve (Gabriel Cartol). Tótem, on the other hand, occupies the chaotic rooms of an extended household on the day of a party where the idea of any sort of space that isn’t occupied by something or someone feels vaguely absurd.

But what both of these environments have in common is the different worlds they can represent. In The Chambermaid, each door opened not just into a room but into the specific universe of its occupier while in Tótem there are also different worlds at work, but this time they are the distinct experiences of adults and children.

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Both generations occupy the same space in Tótem but they frequently have an entirely different emotional orbit and experience. Through the course of a single day she shows how these orbits interact and alter one another, though not always in the ways you might expect. This is a much warmer and noisier film than her debut The Chambermaid, with the action reminiscent of Carla Simón’s Alcarras in its adept handling of multiple generations’ experiences simultaneously.

Our chief viewpoint is provided by seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes), who is preparing for her dad’s birthday with her mum Lucia (Iazua Larios). The setting of a loo allows Avilés to quickly show the closeness of the pair as they giggle about Lucia peeing in the sink because her daughter is taking too much time on the can.

Avilés also shows how the worlds of children and adult often intersect via games, as the pair of them hold their breath as they go under a bridge in order to make a wish, Sol’s wish, however, causes an intake of our own as she tells her mum she hopes her daddy won’t die.

It’s the first indication that something is wrong with Tona (Mateo Garcia) as all of his family are attempting to jolly themselves along for his birthday, which is also acting as a last hurrah. Frail with cancer, he’s staying with his sisters Nuri (Montserrat Marañon) and Alejandra (Marisol Gasé), in the house where they grew up, where Sol will also spend the day. Ideas of little and big are emphasised by insects we glimpse about the place through the course of the day, from a tiny bug on the wallpaper to snails that Sol naughtily places on paintings in the house, while there's also an exploration of the infinite versus the finite.

The younger generation is also represented by Sol’s younger cousin Ester (Saori Gurza), who we often see with mum Nuri, with a couple of additional cousins thrown into the mix later. Meanwhile, there’s also the family patriarch Roberto (Alberto Amador), who holds a vibrating electrolarynx to his voicebox when he needs to speak. This latter item gives an indication of how well Avilés handles the feel and tone of Tótem. Of course it’s almost inevitable that children would view their grandad’s tool as a toy but Avilés doesn’t overplay this, merely using it to illustrate both the curiosity it represents to the kids and the general short temper of Roberto.

Avilés' carefully shows the disconnect between what the adults want children to know and what children take away from encounters. Sol is desperate to see her dad but, because she doesn’t understand he’s trying to rest so he has the energy for the party, she fears he doesn’t want to see her because he doesn’t love her any more. Elsewhere, the writer/director shows how even when children don’t fully understand a situation they can be emotionally atuned to it - as when Ester comforts her mum over a burned cake. This idea of different things being in and out of focus for the various generations runs through a film that has sweetly comic moments and poignancy in equal measure - from Tona receiving an unexpected gift, to Sol encountering an unexpected visitor. One other thing the film has in common with The Chamermaid is the presence of Theresa Sanchez, who played Minitoy in Avilés’ first film. Here, as the nurse who is helping Tona, she acts as a sort of go-between able to navigate her way through both Sol’s fears and those of the older generation.

Like the intricate Starry Night painting Nuri is putting on Tona's cake, there is a lot going on in Tótem, as wheels swirl within wheels, but the chaos it’s carefully orchestrated by Avilés and her editor Omar Guzman to let its themes of interconnection sing out.

Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2023
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In a large house, friends and family meet for a dual ritual: it is the birthday of young father and painter Tona, but also a farewell ceremony.
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Director: Lila Avilés

Writer: Lila Avilés

Starring: Naíma Sentíes, Monserrat Marañon, Marisol Gasé, Saori Gurza, Teresita Sánchez

Year: 2023

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Mexico, Denmark, France

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