Beautiful and Devastating: Lila Avilés’ Tótem

By 26 November, 2023

The term ‘totem’ has multiple connotations: clan, emblem, spirit being, lineage, tribe. Mexican director Lila Avilés, who S&C caught up with during this year’s BFI London Film Festival, interprets it as the hidden, animal part of yourself. Through screening the film worldwide for the past year she has learnt of, and been surprised by, its multiple meanings in different cultures. Each meaning weaves a thread into her beautifully layered and intimate portrayal of seven-year-old Sol’s story, which we glimpse into during a family party being thrown for her father’s birthday and likely death from a terrible illness. 

The energy of Aviles’ film, all set during her family’s preparation and hosting of this dual celebration, simmers around Sol, as we are led into the depths of her difficult position. It’s an emotional journey, fusing the joy and tragedy of this clan, with a burning love at its core. 

After the success of The Chambermaid, Avilés continues the exploration of relationships within interior spaces, this time through the explosive energy of this large family, each with their ties to Sol’s father Tona (Mateo Garcia), which unites them all for this event. The family gathering takes place over one day in their Mexican home, between the four walls of the house, with many people moving in and out. Bickering, laughing, fussing and panicking are portrayed with both seriousness and silliness as the family’s frenzied day moves into the evening of the party itself. 

During the changing motions of the event, the different stages of grief are subtly explored in a family portrait that feels viscerally real. It becomes clear that for all, including Sol, they prepare in some way to say goodbye to their beloved Tona. Nuri, played with intensity by Montserrat Marañon, distracts herself from facing her brother and best friend, whilst Sol’s mother Lucía (the captivating Iazua Larios who was amazing in Michel Franco’s Sundown) squeezes each drop of joy from her moments with Sol and Tona with an embrace that feels like their last. 

We move with Sol in her focused observation, taking some quiet amongst the noise, contemplating what may be going on. Tragic yet wonderful moments express her working things out: in a quiet corner she asks Siri “when will the world end?”. She is a character with a rich inner world, expressed through Diego Tenorio’s close and crisp cinematography, often slipping into moments of portraiture, with an intimate connection with animals and nature. 

Sol, played by first-time actor Naíma Sentíes, has a quiet wisdom that makes her character so endearing. Her sadness feels truthful, even more real with Lila’s dedication at the end of the film ‘for my daughter’. Speaking to Lila about the personal aspects of her film, she had the warmth of someone who clearly embraces the joy and pain within this story, expressing her happiness in making this film that is so close to her reality. We had an inspiring conversation about how feeling and intuition guides her writing process and how important play is when it comes to bringing these words to life. “You can fall but don’t break” – is a line from the film that stays with you.

Lila achieves something incredible in this portrayal, recognised by her Oscar nomination for best foreign picture next year. Just like these poignant moments in life, Tótem is beautiful and devastating at the same time.

Tótem is available in UK cinemas from 1 December, via New Wave Films. Read S&C’s interview with Lila here.

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