Connect with us
Lila Avilés Tótem


Tótem | Review

Tótem | Review

Life and Death of the Party: Aviles’ Bustling Ensemble Piece Balances Pain & Profundity

Lila Aviles Totem Review Taking place over the course of one frenetic day, Lila Avilés’ sophomore film Tótem plays like the inverse scenario of her celebrated 2018 debut The Chambermaid. Whereas the former dealt with significant class disparities from the perspective of a maid’s experiences at a luxury hotel in Mexico City while trying to obtain her GED, Aviles’ herds a more intimate cast of eclectic characters in one claustrophobic space where preparations are taking place for a birthday celebration. In short order, it appears the celebration will likely serve as a farewell party for its subject, a twenty-seven-year old artist dying of cancer. DP Diego Tenorio’s camera knows just where to pull focus as we observe various family members’ perspectives over the course of the day, though mostly we’re aligned with the navigation of the dying man’s young daughter, Sol, quietly waiting for her father to make an appearance at the party. As the title suggests, symbolic and spiritual metaphors converge in this contained universe of dualities.

Sol (Naima Senties) and her mother Lucia (Iazua Larios) are headed to her grandfather’s home where preparations are underway to celebrate her father Tona’s (Mateo Garcia Elizondo) birthday. But it seems Tona, who is suffering from late stage cancer, is mostly bedridden and his potential appearance at the party is dubious. Meanwhile, Sol spends the day at the house, which is populated by her aunts Nuri (Monserrat Maranon) and Alejandra (Marisol Gase) as well as their children. As the women bustle about cleaning and cooking, her father’s nursemaid, Cruz (Teresita Sanchez) makes appearances to placate Sol, who keeps wishing to see her father.

Lila Avilés Tótem

Avilés injects an unexpected amount of observational humor while also channeling something like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000), where a child’s awareness in the situation of caring for a loved one is limited by their lack of worldly comprehension. The close knit family and the disruption they’re grappling with also feels similar to something like Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (2014). As Sol, newcomer Naima Senties delivers a finely wrought performance, and the success of Tótem relies on her ability to carry this film (and likewise Saori Gurza, a younger girl playing Sol’s cousin, Ester). But she’s surrounded by a cast of characters who seem warm and familiar, including her two harried aunts, Alejandra and Nuria, each stressed over their assigned tasks for the party.

Lila Avilés Tótem

Some of the film’s best moments transpire in the tangential moments only cursorily related to the party, including the sudden appearance of Ludica (Marisela Villarruel), whom Alejandra hires to cleanse the house of its bad spirits as a superstitious bid to help Tona. Ludica courts the disdain of grandfather, who’s forced to speak with an electrolarynx, itself producing a handful of comedic moments as he provides therapy services for clients out of his home office. Other standouts include Cruz, the nursemaid hired to care for Tona (whom Alejandra has neglected to pay in two weeks, making a priority out of more frivolous endeavors, i.e., Ludica). Sol’s interest in the animal kingdom is also of note, a whole menagerie of creatures making an appearance, including a cat, a dog, a goldfish named Nugget, various insects and a predatory bird swooping in like a metaphorical specter of death.

By the time we are introduced to Tona as the party commences, all the main players converge and Tótem settles into its phase of catharsis. He’s painted a final portrait for Sol, a portrait of all her favorite animals gathered in one place (like their party, or the Biblical ark), while friends make speeches, and a long awaited cake (fantastically decorated like Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’) makes its appearance after Lucia and Sol deliver a sweet, operatic performance in honor of Tona. Poignant but never sentimental, Tótem is a highly flavorful stew of characters whose various idiosyncrasies provide a loving, sometimes contentious tapestry.

Reviewed on February 20th at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival – Competition section. 95 mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

Click to comment

More in Reviews

To Top