Tótem review – family tensions feel real in heartfelt Mexican cancer drama


This new film from Lila Avilés, a Mexican actor-turned-director, has a poignant and tranquil sadness at its core. It is a beautiful feeling, but for me, it is also quite tranquil. I greatly appreciated Avilés’ 2018 debut, The Chambermaid, which I believe had more emotional depth and intensity than this follow-up, even though it is heartfelt.

What is the meaning of the term “totem” in the title? Is it one of the various objects that hold significance in Mesoamerican history, or more ordinary items such as a bonsai tree or a decorated cake? Alternatively, could the “totem” refer to the main character Tona (played by Mateo Garcia), a talented artist who is battling cancer? Despite their own struggles and possibly ignoring their pain, Tona’s loved ones are throwing a grand party in his honor at his home to celebrate his life and the love that surrounds him. However, this final effort to attend the party may also be too much for Tona’s fragile health.

Interestingly, Tona is not present for the first half of the movie. Instead, the focus is on the other family members as they prepare for an upcoming event. They seem to be avoiding facing a difficult truth and keeping themselves occupied with various tasks. The scenes with the children have a relaxed, improvised feel. Tona’s sister Nuria is stressed about baking a cake, and at one point she even slaps her daughter for making fun of Tona’s daughter Sol’s silly clown wig. There is also tension between Tona’s other sister Alejandra and Tona’s partner Lucia, who is also Sol’s mother. Despite this, Lucia remains composed. Tona’s father Roberto is a psychotherapist and throat cancer survivor who has his office in the family home. He is disappointed by the unorthodox treatments his children have turned to, including one woman who uses burning sticks and burping to dispel negative energies.

In the latter half of the story, Tona makes an appearance as a frail, quiet individual who keeps his emotions to himself. His nurse, Cruz (Teresita Sánchez), has not been paid for two weeks and her significance in Tona’s life could have been given more attention.

There is conflict and disagreement among the siblings. They cannot come to a decision about whether Tona should receive additional morphine, which alleviates pain but causes confusion and is also costly. Nuria and Alejandra argue about Nuria’s alcohol consumption and Alejandra’s perceived bossiness during the evening. A hot air balloon in the style of Chinese tradition is symbolically launched from the garden, but it catches fire in a chaotic manner… thankfully, without causing any serious damage. Lastly, Sol mimes along to a song while wearing a wig.

However, in reality, nothing truly significant occurs. The impending death of Tona and the love the characters have for him overshadow everything else. Perhaps, that is the intended message. Despite this, I couldn’t help but find a sense of preciousness in Sol’s childlike innocence and the atmosphere of Zen acceptance (though it is flawed and limited). Tona, who remains mysterious and unforthcoming, offers no real insight into his own character. It is evident that this project holds a deep personal meaning for Avilés, and the heartbreak portrayed feels authentic.

Source: theguardian.com