Berlinale 2023 Review: Lila Avilés’ Spellbinding “Tótem” Puts a Hold On You

“What happened in this place?” Ludica (Marisela Villarruel), a shaman asks as she’s patting down the walls of a family home in “Tótem,” invited over by its matriarch Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) to cleanse the place before a birthday party commences later that night. The vibes are so bad that it’ll cost more than her usual rate, with Alejandra’s husband Roberto already rolling his eyes over the “satanic bullshit,” but Ale isn’t taking any chances with making the evening perfect for her son Tona (Mateo Garcia), whose cancer has become so bad he rarely leaves his room in the back, requiring the assistance of a full-time caretaker Cruz (Teresita Sanchez), who helps him get in and out of bed.

Writer/director Lila Avilés is working towards the same ends as the family she settles into in her magnificent second feature if the goal is to make Tona forget about his pain even for a moment, crafting a thrillingly vital family portrait about a clan that does its very best to celebrate someone they’re about to mourn. Ludica’s visit reveals that Tona’s diagnosis, while particularly cruel when he’s so young, isn’t the first tragedy that they’ve had to endure and surely it’s informed how Alejandra, his sister Nuria (Montserrat Maranon) and brother Napo (Juan Francisco Maldonado) have made a decision to keep spirits high for the benefit of others. That includes his seven-year-old daughter Sol (Naima Senties), who couldn’t possibly comprehend what’s about to happen, with only the most minimal preparation offered by her mother Lucia (Iazua Larios) before dropping her off in the morning with her father’s family.

Largely staying within Sol’s limited point of view, “Tótem” brilliantly unfolds with the understanding that what she’s seeing is a bit of a curated experience, told by anyone she asks regarding her father’s whereabouts that he’s resting for the big night. Yet she’s prone to asking questions that are both innocent and intuitive all at once, wondering why her father’s paintings have been taken down in the halls of the home and unaware of the challenge she’s posing to a Siri-like device with the question “How will the world end?” It’s one thing for relatives to give vaguely satisfactory answers and reassurance, showing endless reserves of compassion to soften the blow when they know it’s going to hit them hard as well, but Avilés gracefully follows Sol’s curious footsteps throughout the house where evidence of well-lived lives are able to sit with the forthcoming sorrow, whether it’s the room Alejandra keeps for her ceramics, the bonsai tree that Roberto has clearly invested much time trimming in between seeing patients for his psychiatric practice, or the tropical plants that blossom in the corners.

It’s easier to accept that life goes on when it never stops in the film, and despite markers of the single day it takes place in, you lose all sense of time in “Tótem” when you’re swept up in the rhythms of life Avilés summons so organically. The characters’ preoccupations become yours, with Sol fascinated by the snails she finds slinking around on the window sills, Nuria scrambling to replace the cake that got burnt in the oven for Tona, and Alejandra managing the money that’s going out the door for the special evening. The family may spare no expense in demonstrating their love for Tona, but Avilés catches how generously they show it well before the party rolls around to him and to one another, and although a feeling of loss is inevitable, “Tótem” admirably dares to see accepting it as a part of life.

“Tótem” will screen at Berlinale on February 21st at 3:30 pm at the Zoo Palast 1, February 21st at 6:30 pm at the Verti Music Hall, February 24th at 10 am at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele and February 26th at 12:45 pm at the Berlinale Palast.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.