TóTEM Review: Domestic, Universal, Heartbreaking, Morbidly Hilarious

This movie killed me.

Contributing Writer; Montreal
TóTEM Review: Domestic, Universal, Heartbreaking, Morbidly Hilarious

It took me three days to watch Tótem. I could only bear to watch about 15 to 30 minutes at a time.

Which is funny, given that the film itself takes place over the course of a day, if not less, and sad because I am sure the characters would also want to look away as much as I did. The day consists of preparations for a birthday party: cleaning, dyeing hair, baking, and so forth. The place is Mexico. The birthday man is dying.

The audience can presume Tona (Mateo García Elizondo) has cancer, and it is implied it was what killed this young man's mother as well. Even younger is his 7-year-old daughter Sol (Naíma Sentíes), who keeps asking questions about her father's last birthday to the distress of the adults. Sol is kept away from her father's deathbed, so he can gather strength for the party, and the camera follows her solitude and dawning realizations.

The get-together is the brainchild of her aunt Alejandra (Marisol Gasé), smoking her way through the film. The other aunt, Nuri (Montserrat Marañon), drinks. Their vices showcase the difficulty of the situation, especially when money troubles permeate their brother's declining health. Still, they try.

Their efforts are the driving force of Tótem. Alejandra hires people to come cleanse the house of harmful spirits. Nuri shaves her head in solidarity. There's a palpable sense of the desperation these situations and their impotence bring about.

Their father Roberto (Alberto Amador), older and widowed, has resigned himself to losing his son. His sullen lack of participation is made literal by a device he must hold to his throat for his voice to come out, often stolen by Sol.

Naíma Sentíes is incredible. There is a marked difference in how much Sol is left to her own devices, while all the other cousins are shepherded into chores and have their appearances cleaned up by their mothers.

A well-meaning uncle gives Sol a fish, something for her to take care of while no one takes care of her. Her loneliness has its destructive moments: Sol drinks wine and lies about it, Sol insists on spending most of the party on the roof, Sol throws rocks at a drone.

Not much is shown of Tona. Like Sol, he is isolated save for a personal nurse, Cruz (Teresita Sánchez). Like Sol, he seems to communicate with the environment more than its people. When he does pull himself together to greet his friends and family, the camera stays behind his neck, giving the audience what he sees more than how he reacts to it. Previous scenes have established that he is in immense and undignified pain. The dialogue shows him thanking people for a party he did not want, talking about how happy it has made him. God.

Director Lila Avilés' second film is domestic and universal, heartbreaking and morbidly hilarious. The ending is the eeriest thing I have seen in a while.

The film is now playing in select U.S. theaters. Visit the official site for more information.

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Lila AvilésMateo García ElizondoNaíma Sentíes

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