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Lila Aviles, a Mexican director, fascinated us with her first film, The Chambermaid. Her second film is no less striking than the previous one. It is so full of life and death colors and hope that it appears more like a poem turned into a movie than an actual cinema with its metaphoric repercussions drowned in everyday talk and still this movie remains at heart as an awe-inspiring image of meditative death.

Storyline: Totem

Deceptively starts off as a story about mother Lucia (Iazua Larios) and her 7-year-old daughter Sol (Naima Senties, the true star of the movie) locked together in public restrooms having silly conversations on religious matters (like whether two women who are mother and child should go to the toilet together), Totem takes us to another world which we do not know where it will end up.

Sol’s mom is taking her daughter to family get-together since Sol will be celebrating her birthday. It turns out that from now on her mother will become “one of those.” Death has been looming over this family. Tonatiuh, Sol’s young father (Mateo Garcia Elizondo who makes his character unforgettable for being too young to die but waiting for death), has cancer and he may not even live long enough to attend his own birthday party.

Tonatiuh is too weak even to see his daughter himself. But she does not give up. She wants to visit him again so as perhaps ask: why are you dying? What does it mean?

This is clearly a disassembled family spiraling into nothingness because there are no reins anymore for them to hold onto. These problems are already way beyond any redeemable tragedies that could have happened here or there. At least there would be one evening when each member of the family could possibly forget about their tragedy that entwines them.

Final Verdict

Aviles, the director-writer, allows her camera to move through tragedy’s maze at will. She does not judge nor is she an active participant in the broken lives she visits for 90 minutes. Aviles knows she cannot help this family, and she should not have even come. She lets them go.

One of the reasons this movie is not like a film is its rhythm of normalcy amidst impending tragedy that is undisturbed by what I would term as cinema dynamics. The cinematographer (Diego Tenorio) and editor (Omar Guzman) were involved in minimum alterations. This group of technicians who created this drama about a dysfunctional family that appears unscripted are responsible for it being almost invisible.

I feel like an intruder in a busy house throughout the film. There is no time to introduce oneself quickly or otherwise. And you have to figure out who is who on your own. It feels as if I know these characters already although they do not know I do.

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