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The sequel to Mexican director Lila Avilés’ “La camarara” follows a chaotic family reunion through the eyes of a young girl.
Acclaimed Mexican writer-director Lila Aviles’ 2018 debut, The Chambermaid was set in a posh Mexico City hotel whose rooms the titular heroine always struggled to clean, continually trying to erase guest evidence . Its sequel, Totem, in this year’s Berlinale main competition, also takes place mostly in a large space, but is something of a mirror inversion of Chambermaid’s clinical austerity. This time the setting is not an anonymous inn, but a family home that is loved and lived in, full of relatives, clutter, pets, food and memories that float in the sunlight like specks of dust.
As boisterous, joyous and exhausting as the multigenerational fiesta at the heart of its story, Tótem packs a punch in a film of just 95 minutes and should further solidify Avilés’ reputation as an auteur with a unique vision and extraordinary skill. actors, especially non-professionals.
True to his name, eight- or nine-year-old Sol (discovered by Naima Senties) is the silent, luminous warmth at the heart of the story. She is first seen with her mother Lucía (Iazua Larios), unsuccessfully trying to poop in one of the many toilets scattered throughout. The fact that Sol sits on his porcelain throne laughing as he chats with her mother is indicative of how open this family is to each other, to a degree that can be a little alarming to more uptight viewers.
In fact, the general lack of boundaries within this family may be one of the reasons people like to hole up in the toilets all the time. Furthermore, as if to underline the fundamental animality of the people we meet, no different from the birds, insects, cats or the many animals seen in the film, Avilés continues to remind us of the basic human needs of the characters (eating, defecating, vomiting when sick) and how crucial it is to have a place where those needs can be met and managed among loved ones. Viewers who are parents or have had to care for sick relatives can respond particularly viscerally to this.
Gradually, the narrative iris expands as we meet the many other members of Sol’s family as they prepare during the day for a birthday party planned for that night for Sol’s father, Tonatiuh (Mateo García Elizondo), a painter. Of course, it is not exactly certain that he will be able to participate. So thin that he’s practically a bundle of sticks after a long and inconclusive battle with cancer, Tonatiuh spends most of his time in bed at the family home, cared for by his loving contract nurse Cruz (Teresita Sánchez, co-star of The Maid), too frail to even see Sol.
Below, Sol’s aunts/Tonatiuh’s sisters are busy preparing for the big party. Bossy Alejandra (Marisol Gase) is multitasking overseeing meal prep and hair coloring. Nuri (Montserrat Maranon), whose daughter Ester (Saori Gurza) is slightly younger than Sol, tries to make a cake with her little girl, but becomes less skilled and increasingly drunk as the day goes on. Her own children are running in and out of the house, as reluctant as any teenager to get off the couch and do their homework.
Elsewhere, the family’s gruff patriarch, Roberto (Alberto Amador), does his duty, happy to leave all the preparations to the women. More often than not, he comes out of his den like a grumpy bear to lash out at his nephews when they have the temerity to steal his electrolarynx (the battery-operated machine that restores voice when held against the neck for those he cares about). have removed the larynx).
Although Sol, with his alert and intelligent face (Senties gives a wonderfully naturalistic performance) is the guiding star of the film, the camera’s focus is diverted around the house to watch everyone as they continue their preparations. As the sun sets and all the guests arrive, the party begins in earnest, with moving speeches and tables set in the outdoor garden, all illuminated by festoons of Christmas lights hanging from the trees.
The dialogue in this particular back half feels particularly off-the-cuff, spawned by lots of non-professionals bound to play versions of themselves or people they know. But there’s a meticulous artistry in the way Avilés and editor Omar Guzmán tie it all together. Themes and structure emerge from what at first appears to be chaos: the relationship between humans and the animal world, cosmology, the end of the world (about which Sol questions the digital assistant on the phone). The microcosm and the macrocosm expand and retract into each other at all times.
Perhaps because of that abundant sense of vastness and density of relationships explored, the film feels longer than it is, but not in an unpleasant way. Like some of the great ensemble dramas of the Romanian New Wave, Totem packs a lot of drama into a small space, and the payoffs are immense.
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