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'Tótem' invites you to a family birthday party — but Death has RSVP'd, too

Naíma Sentíes and Montserrat Marañon in <em>Tótem</em>.
Naíma Sentíes and Montserrat Marañon in Tótem.

There's a scene in the movie adaption of Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours when Virginia Woolf is talking to her husband, Leonard, about the book that would become Mrs. Dalloway. After she tells him she's going to kill off a major character, Leonard asks her why. "Someone has to die," she replies, "in order that the rest of us should value life more."

The same tango between life and death takes center stage in Tótem, the radiant second feature by the terrific Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés. Set over the course of a single, life-changing day, this ensemble film thrums with a lively, chaotic intimacy. Heartrending without being sentimental, it offers an even more touching vision of Mexican family life than you got in Alfonso Cuarón's Roma.

Our heroine is Sol — played by Naíma Sentíes — a 7-year-old girl who, unlike most movie kids, is neither cute nor sassy but exudes a natural watchfulness and gravity. As the action begins, she's surrounded by brightly colored balloons in a car with her mother, who tells her to hold her breath and make a wish. Sol wishes "for daddy not to die." It's not clear whether she knows what his dying really means.

We soon reach her grandfather's, a large middle-class house where the family is preparing to have a birthday party for Sol's father, Tona (Mateo García Elizondo), a 30-something artist who's being devoured by a terminal disease. Sol keeps asking to see him but is told she must wait. The emaciated Tona remains sequestered with his nurse, fighting pain and mustering the energy to face the guests who keep arriving to celebrate him.

Sol passes the time watching the adults. While her aunt Alejandra is busy dyeing her hair, her other aunt Nuri is making a cake that looks like a Van Gogh painting, lubricating her efforts with glasses of wine. Out in the garden, grandpa is obsessively pruning a bonsai that he will give to Tona as a present, though both know this gift will outlive the recipient.

As the hours go by, the house gets fuller and rowdier — complete with family bickering and in-jokes — yet we never forget that Death is also a guest at the party.

As the hours go by, the house gets fuller and rowdier — complete with family bickering and in-jokes — yet we never forget that Death is also a guest at the party. At one point, Sol takes her mom's phone and asks Siri, "How will the world end?"

Whenever I tell my friends they just have to see Tótem, they always say something like, "Wow, a movie about death. Sounds fun!" In fact, the movie isn't remotely funereal. Avilés fills its fleeting 95 minutes with all sorts of nifty stuff. There are scorpions and drones, a scene-stealing cat, a spirited pantomime from a Donizetti opera, even a visit from a scamming psychic who Alejandra has hired to cleanse the negative spirits from the house. "I also sell Tupperware," she announces.

Avilés first came on the world scene with her 2018 feature debut, The Chambermaid, a smart, witty story about a woman doing drudge work at a luxury hotel in Mexico City that felt as inhuman as the spaceship in 2001. She spreads her wings even wider in Tótem, which tackles many more characters and traces more flickering emotions.

In following Sol's long day's journey into night, when the birthday boy finally appears and she finally gets to see her father, Avilés deftly juggles Sol's childish view with the complexity of what the adults are going through. Graced with Diego Tenorio's luminous camerawork, Avilés moves from character to character with enormous delicacy, revealing gossamer threads of personal connection and, like a crack portraitist, catching faces at their most revealing. Like Woolf, she's attuned to the richness of the fleeting moment.

Even as we feel Tona's pain, and the pain of those who yearn to forget they're going to lose him, Avilés fills Tótem with the pulsing fecundity of the natural order — gaudy flowers and busy insects, sly cats and dopey-faced goldfish, not to mention the human beings who have assembled to soften their grief. At the heart of it all is Sol, who comes to a piercing awareness of the thrilling and chilling polarity of being alive. In the end, Tótem isn't really a movie about death. It's a movie about living.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.