Marina Ashioti

Tótem – first-look review

Lila Avilés’ affecting second feature explores the essence of impending loss through the eyes of a young child.

You might already be familiar with the widespread superstition that if you hold your breath and make a wish while driving through a tunnel, and manage to make it through the other side without breathing out, that wish will come true. Lila Avilés’ lyrical new film opens with this very scene as a seven-year old girl Sol (Naíma Sentíes) is sitting in the backseat of her mother Lucía’s (Iazua Larios) car surrounded by a bundle of balloons. The assumption that they could be headed to another child’s birthday party quickly dissipates when Lucía asks Sol what she had wished for, to which she responds with, “I wish that daddy will not die”.

It soon becomes apparent that the fête in question is to celebrate her father, Tona’s (Mateo Garcia) birthday. The film unfolds as Sol arrives at her grandfather’s home, where preparations are taking place for the surprise party, whilst Tona’s advanced stage of illness keeps him confined, bed-ridden and voluntarily isolated in the darkness of his bedchambers so as to spare his family, particularly his daughter, the sight of his deteriorating physical condition. Diego Tenorio’s cinematography is exquisite, his lens carefully delineating the interiors of a large residence that appears to be home to a seemingly tight-knit family made up of grandfather Roberto (Alberto Amador), his daughters Nuria (Montserrat Marañón), Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) and Ester (Saori Gurza) and their own children of varying ages who wander in and out of the picture.

Each character within this sprawling multigenerational cast feels incredibly fleshed out, lived in, and true to life, and Avilés elegantly shifts the focus from one family member to the other. The trust between her and the cast feels palpable and grounded by her intuitive direction, especially in the case of the young Naíma Sentíes, whose inquisitive character anchors the entire ensemble as she wanders around the home, placing slugs on paintings, building pillow forts and eavesdropping on conversations in anticipation of the moment she finally gets to reunite with her father.

There is a rich, transfixing level of detail within Tótem’s natural symbolism – it’s tactile and never heavy-handed. The film’s intimate visual storytelling and technical prowess are further bolstered by an impressive sound design and sharp editing, both guided by the principle of “show, don’t tell” and culminating in an extra-sensory experience. And although unequivocally underpinned by profound sadness and impending loss, a tender spirit of warmth and levity permeates the screen, sustaining a buoyancy that keeps the film from sinking into mawkish waters.

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Published 20 Feb 2023

Tags: Lila Avilés Tótem

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