TÓTEM (Melbourne IFF 2023) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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With the highly anticipated follow-up to her 2018 film The Chambermaid, Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés returns with an immersive portrait of a family in crisis in Tótem. With a particular focus on seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes), the little girl readies herself with her mother as she is dropped off at her grandfather’s home as the family prepare a special birthday party for Sol’s father, Tona (Mateo Garcia) who has terminal cancer. Tracking the family across the day of preparations as the celebration moves nearer, tensions rise and the bonds that tether the family to each other are put to the test.

With a simple, wandering camera, Avilés makes Tótem a wholly immersive experience, and while we are never reduced to seeing the film wholly from Sol’s perspective, she is the character we return to time and time again, anchoring us to the emotional heart of the film. That Avilés herself has a background as an actor comes as little surprise, her ability to elicit performances out of her film’s children – Sentíes in particular, but also Saori Gurza who plays Sol’s adorable younger cousin, Ester – surely one of the film’s core strengths.

Nominated for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale (and winning the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury), it is the way that Tótem so seamlessly brings together the different stories of the central family that grant it such remarkable power. Different people respond to Tona’s rapidly deteriorating health in different ways, and the unspoken reality that this may be their last family gathering together hangs heavily over every frame. Using a cast of predominantly non-professional actors, there is an authenticity and energy to Tótem that feels incredibly alive, a feeling we become acutely aware of as the seriousness of Tona’s health issues are increasingly revealed. Tótem is a compassionate little wonder of a film.

NOTE: Without actors and writers, we wouldn’t have movies. This review was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes in the United States, and the author of this review supports them unequivocally.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).