Totem (2023) Berlinale | Competition (2023)

February 20th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Lila Aviles | Naima Senties, Montserrat Maranon, Marisol Gase, Saori Gurza, Mateo Garcia | Mexico, Drama 95′

Totem is another observational piece of filmmaking from Mexican filmmaker Lila Alviles whose debut The Chambermaid garnered awards all over the world. Seen through the eyes of a little girl called Solecita who is a mine of information about the animal kingdom, a place she escapes to avoid the trauma of her father Tona’s terminal illness.

From the exuberant opening scenes in a public restroom the handheld camera thrusts into the intimate hurly burly of domestic life in a whir of comings and goings of the extended family, in a hive of activity where nothing is left to the imagination -except the nature of Tona’s illness -as preparations for his forthcoming birthday are well underway. His wife, an alcoholic with a glass of whisky on the go at all times, is baking a cake, and her sister dyeing her hair.  Her uncle Napo soon turns up with a goldfish, and Sol and her brother and little sister name it Nugget.

Close up and personal drama centric movie about an entire family who live together. mother and daughter singing in a public lavatory in close up and personal family relationship.

Meanwhile in the hushed confines of his bedroom Tona -a local celebrity in the local community – is suffering the agonies of some kind of debilitating illness possibly cancer, his carer Cruz tending him patiently all the time aware of the impact his possibly terminal affliction is having on little Sol – an astonishing in her screen debut.- a sensitive little girl who takes everything seriously – not least the end of the world and other matters existential

The family have been putting their heads together to find a way forward for Tona’s treatment – he has been taking morphine but drugs are expensive in Mexico, and chemo is also up for debate.  A mystical faith healer has been called into clear the house of evil spirits and balance the positive  energy: Ludica has located good energy in a part of the room where the grandmother used to sit and she then sweeps the room with a flaming loaf of bread, charging 3000 pesos for her services. The grumpy grandfather – who speaks through a special gadget – has been tending a bonsai  for the past 8 years, a gift especially for his son special day.

Giving up on traditional medicine the family put their faith in their spiritual beliefs in a union of souls which gives the film some of its most exuberant scenes captured by DoP Diego Tenorio. In the light of Tona,’s worsening condition these jubilant celebrations are tinged with a certain poignance making them all the more significant. And although weak and in pain he is determined to make an appearance, and when he does so friends and family are over-joyed to see him and send brightly coloured balloons into the night sky as a gift for the gods. The birthday is a wonderful occasion in rich colours lots of dancing and a special performance from Sol. Ending with an extraordinary booming sound as if the whole universe is resounding in support of Tona. The final scene is simply breathtaking. MT

BERLINALE 2023 | COMPETITION 2023 | ECUMENICAL AWARD 2023

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