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


There is a lovely, yet somewhat calm melancholy at the core of this recent film by Lila Avilés, a Mexican actor who has now turned to directing. I greatly appreciated her debut film, The Chambermaid, in 2018, which I believe had a stronger emotional impact and intensity compared to this subsequent work, even though it is still heartfelt.

The main concern is: what does the title’s “totem” refer to? Is it one of the many objects that hold significance in Mesoamerican history or more mundane items like a bonsai tree and a fancy cake? Or is the “totem” the protagonist: Tona (Mateo Garcia), a gifted artist who is terminally ill with cancer? His close relatives and friends are organizing a large gathering at his home, defiantly celebrating his life and the love that surrounds him, while possibly ignoring their own despair and the possibility that attending this party in his honor may hasten Tona’s death.

Interestingly, Tona is not present for the first half of the film. Instead, the focus is on the other members of the family as they prepare for an event. They seem to use avoidance tactics and engage in other activities to distract themselves from a difficult truth. The scenes with the children have a natural, improvised feel. Tona’s sister Nuria is particularly stressed about baking a cake and even slaps her daughter at one point for making fun of her daughter’s silly clown wig. There is tension between Tona’s other sister Alejandra and Tona’s partner Lucia, but Lucia manages to keep things under control. Tona’s father Roberto, a psychotherapist who works from their family home, is a cancer survivor and is disappointed by the pseudoscientific treatments his children have embraced. These include a woman who uses a burning stick and burping to dispel negative energy.

Tona does not fully emerge until the second half, portrayed as a frail and reserved individual who keeps his emotions to himself. His nurse, Cruz (played by Teresita Sánchez), has not been paid for two weeks and her significant role in Tona’s life may have warranted more screen time.

There is conflict and disagreement among the siblings. They cannot agree on whether Tona should receive more morphine to alleviate his pain, even though it makes him unable to think clearly and is costly. Nuria and Alejandra argue during the night about Nuria’s drinking and Alejandra’s perceived bossiness. A hot-air balloon, reminiscent of Chinese style, is lit on fire in the chaotic garden, but thankfully there are no serious consequences. Lastly, Sol performs a song while wearing a wig.

However, nothing truly significant occurs. In comparison to Tona’s impending death and the love the characters have for him, everything else holds little significance. Perhaps that is the intended message. I noticed a hint of preciousness in Sol’s childlike innocence, the atmosphere of Zen acceptance (although it may be flawed and conditional), and the enigmatic and reserved Tona who does not share much about himself. This is a deeply personal project for Avilés and the heartache portrayed feels genuine.

Source: theguardian.com

You May Also Like

More From Author