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‹ Flicks with The Film Snob


May 24, 2024
Flicks with The Film Snob
Flicks with The Film Snob

A birthday party for a dying man is seen through the eyes of his seven-year-old daughter, portraying her gradual recognition of the truth.

Mexican writer-director Lila Avilés has made a major creative leap in her second film, Tótem. Her excellent debut, The Chambermaid, was focused on a day in the life of one isolated character, a housekeeping employee at a big hotel. Now, five years later, her sophomore effort is a gorgeous multi-character ensemble piece.

Tótem opens with Sol, a seven-year old girl, in a public restroom with her mother Lucia, who is helping her get ready for a birthday celebration for her father, Tonatiuh. Lucia has an appointment and can’t be there until later, so she drops the girl off at her grandfather’s house. The camera takes Sol’s point of view for the most part, as she wanders through the house while her father’s two sisters, Nuria and Alejandra, busily prepare for the party. Nuria is drinking and trying to bake a cake while her own little daughter climbs on the counter getting into mischief. But where is the father? We find out soon enough, as the film takes us to his room, where he lies in bed, obviously very sick, being tended by their kind female Indian servant Cruz. Tona, a relatively young looking artist, has cancer, and the foreboding of his death will hang over the celebration, and the movie. Even as the guests start to arrive, Tona won’t come out of his room for a long time. Sol, as we find out, knows he’s sick, but not yet how bad it really is.

Avilés manages to make every character distinct and memorable. The family is loving, but not without problems, as you can tell by the way the aunts bicker about little things. Alejandra has invited a psychic to come over to do healing rituals for Tona. This strange woman roams around the house burning sage, saying that the wall paintings (clearly done by Tona himself) are too negative, and even burning a piece of bread as part of her routine. The grandfather, who has to use an electrolarynx to speak, rasps “I’m not in the mood for your satantic bull,” and it’s all low-key amusing, but never coarsely so. Avilés balances the humor, wonder, conflict, and sadness throughout the picture, maintaining a mood of wistful, anticipatory grief.

The film’s beauty is assured by the presence of the girl playing Sol, one of Avilés’s fortunate discoveries, Naíma Sentíes. In the opening scene in the restroom, Sol makes a wish that her father won’t die. The rest of the movie is a gradual revelation for her and us, the audience. Her mother, who eventually shows up, is evidently no longer living with her father. Her relatives, concentrated on getting ready, acknowledge her but don’t interact with her very much. She spends more time looking at various animals in the house: a cat, several dogs, a fish, a praying mantis, and a bunch of snails that she begins to carefully put on each of the wall paintings.

It’s not clear to me why the film is called Tótem. For what it’s worth, the father’s name Tonatiuh, is also the name of an Aztec sun god, and Sol is a Latin name for the sun. But symbolism is always in a minor key here, never overt. The picture is about mortality and our relationship to it. It’s never dreary or slow—the effect is of a transforming intimacy. When Tona finally comes out of his room into the party at the end, his daughter’s recognition of the truth is marvelously conveyed without words.

There’s something almost unbearably touching about Tótem. It’s a quiet masterwork.

birthday,   daughter,   death,   family,   girl,  


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