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Movie Review (Berlinale 2023): ‘Tótem’ is a Touching Exploration of the Dualities of Life and Death 

Movie Review (Berlinale 2023): ‘Tótem’ is a Touching Exploration of the Dualities of Life and Death 

Director: Lila Avilés

Writer: Lila Avilés

Stars: Naíma Sentíes, Montserrat Maranon, Marisol Gase

Synopsis: Seven-year-old Sol spends the day at her grandfather’s home, helping with the preparations for a surprise party for her father. Throughout the day, chaos slowly takes over, fracturing the family’s foundations. Sol will embrace the essence of letting go as a release for existence.

Lila Avilés’ sophomore feature, Tótem, has the actress-turned-filmmaker delivering a personal and warm family drama about the intricacy of human relationships and their experiences with mortality. The Mexican filmmaker’s latest intertwines deep-seeded sadness with tenderness and levity to keep the film from indulging in overly-sentimental and histrionic mechanisms. 

Lila Avilés is a talented force to be reckoned with. Although she has less than a handful of features in her young filmography, her filmmaking has a firm grip on powerful dramatic sensibilities that feel equally personal, passionate, and emotional. From the moment I finished her directorial debut, The Chambermaid (2018), I knew that Avilés told her stories from the heart – curating rich stories that her country, and cinephiles across the world, would be proud of and enjoy. She seemed to have struck a chord quickly with her cinematic prowess. Five years have passed since the release of The Chambermaid, and since then, we have been waiting anxiously to see what story she delivers next. But now, the time has finally arrived. Her sophomore feature, Tótem, premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival in its competition selection, and it was oh-so worth it. In comparison to her directorial debut and shorts, Avilés’ directorial touch is more delicate and intimate here as she reflects on the complexity of human relationships and the different ways in which people view mortality. 

Lila Avilés’ Tótem takes place over the course of one fierce and draining day, which, for many, will serve as an introduction to the sadness that shapes life as we know it and, for others, an exploration to keep what’s left of your kin and relatives together. Avilés puts aside the crammed hotel rooms of The Chambermaid’s setting for a large house, where some festivities are about to take place. It begins with a contradiction between celebration and farewell, wishfulness and sorrow, as a seven-year-old girl, Sol (Naíma Sentíes), wishes that her father won’t die while the car is filled with balloons. This creates a weird sensation for the person watching, as some elements develop a notion of festivities, but that line foreruns that there’s suffering lingering within its attendants. A dual ritual is going to take place in her grandfather’s (Alberto Amador) house: the surprise birthday party of a young father and painter, Tona (Mateo García Elizondo), and a farewell ceremony to him as well – his latest one might be his last, due to his late-stage cancer. 

For some part of the story, Sol helps her aunts, Nuri (Montserrat Maranon) and Alejandra (Marisol Gase), along with their children of different ages, prepare the house for the reception. However, the only thing Sol wants to do is see her father. She wants to spend time with him before everything is too late. And her reaction is expected, as at a young age, you don’t expect her to have a worldly comprehension of the ups and downs in life. This might sound like an over-sentimental feast, but Avilés knows well enough not to put this story into those treacherous waters. Instead, she injects vigor and wit into the melancholic haze of its subject matter, occasionally reminding me of the works of Edward Yang (Yi Yi) and Carlos Saura (Cría cuervos…). It reminds me of these ravishing and masterful films because of the innocence behind the tragedy and the aspect of holding onto our most profound bonds with all we’ve got, notably family. 

Familiar tension arises from the frustration behind something you can’t control. To combat those sequences, Avilés juxtaposes them with calm moments to breathe and contemplate loss and the alacrity and delicacy of human relationships. I love films about death and how different people perceive it because it helps us come to terms with it ourselves in some form or fashion. Films like Lila Avilés’ Tótem allow people to open up about their fears about mortality and expiration on a more personal level. It may not be the highest degree imaginable due to it being the most significant mystery (and fear) that life is forged around. But these types of films help us reflect on our different perspectives on death as we age. However, at the same time, there’s a constant sign of life, even when the narrative mostly dwells on loss. Tótem is a celebration of life and the tragic beauty that comes with the longest goodbye. 

Plenty of shots focus on animals (including a cat named Monsi, a couple of dogs, a parrot, and a goldfish), plants, and the yearning for everything to be alright in the end. Slowly but surely, Sol welcomes the essence of letting go. Her process might take more than a day to comprehend, and her journey showered by loss isn’t over. Yet, Avilés’ film captures that feeling with a personal and tender note that one can’t help but be mesmerized by it – reminding you of the various farewells and eternal goodbyes during your childhood when you could not grasp everything that it meant. It isn’t all about the innocent getting their first glimpses of death and grief; the film also captures how even as an adult, it impacts you in every way imaginable. Avilés handles this roundabout of generational grief with a sense of warmth and consolation. 

The adults might comfort the children, but it also happens the other way around; the kids’ innocence helps the older members of the family come to a realization of unity, bringing another layer of spirited potency to this already delightful and careful feature. Tótem is a poignant and beautiful picture that shines a light on the most heartbreaking topics with a warm grasp on the cinematic language of dualities.

Grade: A-

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