In Tótem, a Mexican family gathers to throw a birthday party that is simultaneously a chance to bid farewell to one of their own. The result is a compassionate, patient observation of a family’s attempt to celebrate and memorialise life, with all its joys, exuberance, tears and sorrows. It is an intimate, poignant effort to examine the age-old question: how do we say goodbye to the people we love the most?
The story revolves around Tona, a young artist who is slowly dying of cancer. On his birthday, his family and friends decide to throw him a party, reminding him of those who love him and the memories they share. Yet, Tona does not appear for most of the film – he is suffering from severe pain, his movements confined to a small bedroom with little light and little hope. Instead, the film focuses on the events leading up to the party, closely following his family as they prepare for the celebration while trying to come to terms with a future without Tona. All of this happens in one house, heightening the stress, intimacy and occasional claustrophobia of the film.
The result is a compassionate, patient observation of a family’s attempt to celebrate and memorialise life, with all its joys, exuberance, tears and sorrows.
Avilés’ inhabits her story with real, grounded characters, avoiding the kind of theatrical, inflated performance that this material often warrants. Tona’s sister Nuria (Montserrat Marañon) is under immense stress, hoping to organise a party that her brother deserves while refusing to acknowledge the finality of it all. Tona’s nurse, Cruz (Teresita Sánchez), who has become Tona’s closest companion, watches with unstated sadness and empathy at the family and the dying man that she has grown to love and care for. Tona’s father Roberto (Alberto Amador), a psychotherapist and throat cancer survivor, nags with bitterness as his grandchildren repeatedly bother him with their mischiefs. All of them are trying to occupy themselves with the preparations for the party, shielding their minds from the impending doom and the uncomfortable, fatal truth of Tona’ fragility and deterioration. It is telling that when confronted with the prospect of death, we often choose to look away, to avoid fate and tragedy, as if pretending its non-existence will cast the despair away.
More significantly, in choosing to tell the story from the perspective of Sol (Naíma Sentíes), Tona’s daughter, Avilés is able to show her humanism. While tensions unfold among the adults as they argue about whether to give Tona more morphine to deal with the excruciating pain, or whether hiring a shaman to exorcize the bad energies of the house is a ludicrous idea, Sol’s world is insulated by a constant sense of awe and astonishment at the wonders of life. The bright and serene rays of the sunlight, the gentle buzz of insects in the garden, the tender afternoon breeze. Avilés captures these moments with a lot of care and a lot of heart, balancing the placid sadness that runs throughout the film with life’s lighter moments. Stripped of the usual melodrama and gratuitous weepiness that have plagued many films on this subject matter, Totem thrives by being a slice-of-life that is quietly moving and universally affecting.
The ending is inevitable, but the slow, steady march towards that inevitability is what the film is primarily interested in.
For the family, the party is a way to rebel against the dread and agony that have consumed their lives, a last-ditch attempt at defying misery and fate, even if that defiance is ephemeral and ultimately futile. The ending is inevitable, but the slow, steady march towards that inevitability is what the film is primarily interested in. We’ve all seen this before, told and retold many times on the silver screen. Tótem is certainly not transcendent in its filmmaking or storytelling. Nonetheless, it’s able to leave the audience with just the right amount of heartbreak and emotional weight, giving us the opportunity to reflect on what we should do with the time we have, and what we should be grateful for in the lives we live.