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Film Review: TOTEM (2023): Lila Avilés Creates a Disturbing and Moving Portrait of Family That Brims with Authenticity

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Naíma Sentíes Totem

Totem Review

Totem (2023) Film Review, a movie written and directed by Lila Avilés and starring Naíma Sentíes, Montserrat Marañon, Marisol Gasé, Saori Gurza, Mateo Garcia, Teresita Sánchez, Iazua Larios, Alberto Amador, Juan Francisco Maldonado, Marisela Villarruel, Galia Mayer and Manuel Poncelis.

Lila Avilés’ previous picture, 2018’s The Chambermaid, was a work of tremendous gravity and significance. Five years later, Avilés has arrived with a new picture, Totem, that will hit audiences like a sledgehammer with its dark and probing themes that are provocative, moving and, at times, very relatable. The movie revolves around a young girl named Sol (an energetic Naíma Sentíes) but the character isn’t center stage for all the dramatic tension that takes place during the course of the picture. If anything, Totem, is a powerful reminder that life is too short and that family comes together in times of need and is both the best and, occasionally, the most difficult aspect of life, simultaneously. 

Sol and her mother Lucia (Iazua Larios) are in the bathroom together at the picture’s raw and authentic start. They are sharing the awkwardness of everyday life that many filmmakers tend to ignore. This movie never loses sight of that rough authenticity throughout the entire film. If anything, the movie builds tension so that by the time the movie reaches its devastatingly complex conclusion, the audience will be tremendously affected by the events the movie chronicles, however insignificant these happenings may seem as they are occurring throughout the picture.

What is Totem all about? In two words, real life. Sol’s dad is Tonatiuh (Mateo Garcia in a heartfelt performance). This movie centers on a surprise party for Tonatiuh, a painter with cancer who experiences a lot of pain throughout the picture. This event that is being prepared for in the movie is absolutely heartbreaking in its excesses. Also in the film is Tonatiuh’s sensitive nurse, Cruz (the superb Teresita Sanchez) who seeks her pay at one point in the movie in one of the picture’s strongest scenes. Although, she can only be reimbursed with a part of her salary, she is able to make an interesting choice that will definitely surprise viewers.

The movie is chock full of characters whose lives intersect throughout the film. This is an unconventional family at the outset due to the heavy situations that the people we meet are involved in. The head of the family, Roberto (Alberto Almodor) has suffered through throat cancer and the movie doesn’t sugarcoat his existence at all. It showcases his importance to the family structure and his feelings regarding his family for all their dysfunctional situations.

Marisol Gasé is outstanding as Alejandra, a take charge woman who oversees everything that is happening. Alejandra creates some dramatic substance in the story line through her very existence in it. Sol’s aunt, Nuri (Montserrat Maranon), has a little girl named Ester (Saori Gurza). They are also memorable characters within the context of the picture. Speeches are made, cakes are burnt, fires are accidentally started and revelations are made. It all takes place in such a way that it feels mostly like it’s happening in real-time.

Sol wears a clown wig in a great scene towards the end as she lip-synchs to opera music while appearing to be taller than her actual height. This scene is the pièce de résistance in the movie but the picture takes it up a notch with a scene centering on Sol at the end that is so disturbingly chilling that it could demand a re-watch of the movie to see how the events of the movie all coalesce to create the effect that they do on the characters at hand here. Naíma Sentíes nails this role and it is possible her future will be full of wonderful things to come after her work in this movie.

Totem is not always going to be easy for viewers to watch throughout the duration of its running time. This film is an unflinching, realistic account of the many turmoils every day people experience from money problems to child-raising difficulties to actual life-and-death situations that must be handled with the upmost delicacy. The bridge between younger and older characters is not as wide as it may seem if the events of this picture are any indication.

This picture is not as great as The Chambermaid but it demands respect and attention from its viewers at all times. I didn’t review this film immediately after watching it and that is a good thing. As days passed from watching Totem, the movie has haunted me more and more each day with its honesty and its sadness. It’s not certain many moviegoers will want to see a film like this which feels like a documentary at times but it should be seen because it’s a compelling story of a family in turmoil coming together to celebrate life for all its unpredictable paces. Totem is a film which you will not soon forget if you take the leap and check it out.

Rating: 8/10

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