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BERLINALE 2023 Competition

Review: Totem


- BERLINALE 2023: Lila Avilés crafts a delicate, perceptive and super sensitive story, delving into human nature as depicted through one home and one family over the course of a single day

Review: Totem
Naíma Sentíes in Totem

"Cycles come back around at a certain point, but not always at the same point. It’s an ascending spiral which rotates at different points, even if it seems like it’s the same one." Make no mistake, Totem [+see also:
interview: Lila Avilés
film profile
by Mexico’s Lila Avilés, presented in competition at the Berlinale, is by no means an intellectual chore; on the contrary, it delves into the many nuances of an impossibly ordinary and universal family life. But this information about the perception of time back in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, delivered by a guest in a garden lit up by Chinese lanterns and accommodating the loved ones of a young man who’s very close to death, could almost serve as a programme for this thrillingly refined film which tells a brilliant, intimate story unfolding over a single day in a single place.

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"My wish is that daddy doesn’t die". Sol (Naíma Sentíes) lends the film its main viewpoint: that of a seven-year-old child asking questions, surreptitiously observing, surprising conversations, capturing the stirrings and oscillations around her, without always understanding the adults’ concerns, and living her simple life amidst the excitement of birthday party preparations for her invisible father Tona (Mateo García Elizondo), who is locked up in his room, trying to muster the meagre strength he has to take part in the event.

It’s utter tumult in this household overseen by her aunts Nuri (Montserrat Marañon) and Alejandra (Marisol Gasé): people are cooking, arguing in the bathroom, moving from one room to another (and into the garden replete with insects, swing and shed) under the watchful eye of Sol’s grandfather (who looks after his bonsais when he’s not getting annoyed talking through his electrolarynx), cleaning, and looking after Sol and her little cousin. Other characters soon emerge: an exorcist, an uncle, another aunt, teenage cousins, and Sol’s mother, each of them bringing their own little something to this family fishbowl, which is further filled by Tona’s carer Cruz (Teresita Sánchez). And as they day unfolds, we get to know these characters, the way they communicate with one another, snippets from their past, pressing issues in the present (what treatment should Tona have, and with what money?), and their need to make sure they enjoy this pause, this party which is their "sunlight in the shadows" and the climax of the film.

By way of this fascinating time-space continuum and highly elaborate, strikingly naturalist puzzle revealing a rare talent for detecting the tiniest of emotions, Lila Avilés confirms her full potential which was first unveiled by her debut feature The Chambermaid. By focusing intensely on a microcosm (one house, one family) and by stepping outside of traditional narrative patterns, the director successfully combines the full emotional force of a documentary with the wider horizons of human imagination condensed into fiction (nature, childhood, the end of a world). It’s a film full of life and soul and a modestly deceptive work, for its significance is enormous.

Totem is produced by Mexican firms Limerencia Films and Laterna, in co-production with Denmark’s Paloma Productions and France’s Alpha Violet (who are also steering international sales).

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(Translated from French)

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