‘Tótem’: irreproachable naturalistic drama between party and death | Culture


Lila Avilés’ gaze sticks like a limpet to her creatures and the viewer is placed just a few centimeters from the characters, moves with them, listens to them as if they were part of their actions, almost like an interlocutor. But not in the nervous way of the Dardenne brothers, obsessively following them behind their necks, but in a more natural, calm and delicate way. The director already practiced it in The chambermaid (2018), her good debut in the feature film, with the exhaustive tracking of an employee of a large hotel dedicated to the rooms, their cleanliness and order, with a deadline and in precarious conditions, without judgments or melodramas. And she experiences it again in Totem, another minimalist film in its plot, with a short time frame and small spaces, with which the cinema audience feels so involved in what is happening that it could be another inhabitant of this succinct story: the preparations and the birthday party in a house with a garden of a young husband and father who is dying from a terminal illness.

“I wish daddy doesn’t die,” says his seven-year-old daughter as she conspiratorially plays a game of requests with her mother. It is one of the few explicit presences of death (perhaps the only one) in the text of the film, which goes in other directions to show, in a choral story in which there are no protagonists or secondary characters but only the family as the totem. of the title, a pagan prayer with the flavor of farewell with hardly any sentimentality.

Naíma Senties and Montserrat Marañón, in ‘Tótem’.

Is Totem an intuitive work composed through very close shots in the fashionable format, that 4:3 that further imprisons the protagonists (and the viewer) in an abrasive reality that affects each one in a different way: the curious gaze and sometimes stupefied as a child by the conversations and behaviors of the elders; the banality of the family’s teenagers, who do not fully see the seriousness of the situation; the incompatibilities of the sick man’s sisters, confronted by the characteristics and essence of a party with an aftertaste of burial while still alive or the last breath of fresh air in an existence that is wasting away. Meanwhile, socially and in a community like the Mexican one, which has a very different relationship with death than the Spanish one, different members of the family and friends give themselves up to a kind of last attempt, between the supernatural and the idiotic. , to avoid the end: quantum healing therapy; the spirituality of the cosmogony of the indigenous group of the Lacandones, and even the spiritualist that expels bad vibrations through belching.

The patient’s presence during the first half of the film is sporadic and Avilés never seems to want to film him from the front, as if he were reserving his identity behind modesty. He does it from his back or with his face downcast, lying down or in shadows. However, in the second half, when he finally emerges from his dark retreat in the room to share the offering of his own, he looks at him with as much pity as respect, giving him, like his characters, passionate moments.

Without a drop of music and with continuous changes in point of view, Avilés seems to see himself in the cinema of the Argentine Lucrecia Martel and in her choral portrait of The swamp. A microcosm marked by numerous planes of plants and insects, around a life that is extinct, but in a society that remains. Impeccable cinema, with forms and content that, yes, require the active participation of that audience that not only watches, but must also participate thanks to Avilés’ agile camera.


Address: Lila Aviles.

Performers: Naíma Senties, Mateo García, Monserrat Marañón, Marisol Gasé.

Gender: drama. Mexico, 2023.

Duration: 95 minutes.

Premiere: March 1.

All the culture that goes with you awaits you here.


The literary news analyzed by the best critics in our weekly newsletter