Presented largely from the point of view of two children, Mexican director Lila Avilés’ intimate, emotionally rich Berlin competition entry “Tótem” immerses audiences in a boisterous family gathering, where a handful of adult siblings have gathered to celebrate the birthday of their brother, a painter named Tonatiuh (Mateo Garcia). “Tona” is barely seen for most of the movie, confined to a back room where he refuses visitors. Naturally, this confuses 7-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes), who spends the day wandering the house alone, building a pillow fort in the living room or collecting snails in the garden.
“Sometimes I feel like my dad doesn’t love me when he says he doesn’t want to see me,” Sol confides to her father’s trusted nurse, Cruz (Teresita Sánchez, the lone carryover from Avilés’ exceptional 2018 debut, “The Chambermaid”). Your heart can’t help but break a little in that moment, for by this time, Avilés has already provided enough clues for us to sketch out the rough situation in our heads.
Tona has cancer, and this party serves as a final, ostensibly joyful reunion of friends and loved ones for a man so frail, he can hardly pull himself out of bed. Who among us hasn’t wondered what it might be like to attend our own funeral, to feel the love and witness the grief others might show for our passing? In a sense, the gathering depicted in “Tótem” provides Tona that unique opportunity — a chance to experience the affectionate outpouring (not to mention the laughter, tears and inevitable bickering between siblings) usually reserved for one’s wake. At the same time, it gives us a chance to reflect on mortality and the way we struggle to understand and accept it.
Rich with detail while also being intensely specific to the large middle-class family it observes, Avilés’ lifelike and lived-in second feature alternates among roughly half a dozen characters, inviting audiences to pick their own points of identification in the ensemble. There’s Sol, of course, who can’t get a straight answer from the adults about Tona’s situation — at one point, they start talking in code, breaking up words like “chemotherapy” and “morphine” so the kids don’t understand his decision to stop treatment. And so Sol must resort to asking her telephone deep questions, like whether the world is going to end, and if her dad will survive.
Her mother, Lucia (Lazua Larios), is a free-spirited actor who disappears for much of the movie after leaving an endearingly human first impression in the opening scene: Waiting for Sol to do her business in a public restroom, Lucia pulls down her britches and relieves herself in the sink. It’s a startling spontaneous act that instantly conveys the unfiltered, hyper-familiar dynamic we can expect from her in-laws as well.
After arriving at the house, Lucia leaves Sol under her aunts’ loose supervision. Tasked with decorating the cake, Tona’s stressed-out sister Nuria (Montserrat Marañon) gets progressively more drunk as her preschool-age daughter Ester (Saori Gurza) sits perched atop the fridge. Meanwhile, distracted older sister Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) dyes her hair in the kitchen. She has hired a witchy healer of some kind to rid the house of evil spirits, freely spending money on the treatment that really ought to be paid to Cruz — who quietly watches the nonsense, knowing she’s owed two weeks’ salary for tending to Tona.
The film might seem messy and slightly disorganized on first viewing, but that’s really a reflection of the family, who are constantly elbowing their way into one another’s spaces. Practically the only man in the crowded house’s common areas, Sol’s surly psychologist grandfather Roberto (Alberto Amador) — likely a cancer survivor himself, considering the battery-operated electrolarynx required for him to speak — tries to put the finishing touches on a bonsai tree. At one point, Sol steals the robot-voiced device, giggling at the way it sounds, oblivious as children so often are to the somber code of behavior expected of her on this day.
These actions may seem random and somewhat unmotivated, but they are eventually revealed to be part of a much larger design — the way all of the family members position themselves for what amounts to a celebratory farewell. Though Avilés steers clear of overt sentimentality, it’s hard not to get choked up as the characters upon whom we’ve been eavesdropping for the previous hour finally get the chance to show Tona how they feel.
What is the “Tótem” of the film’s title? Is it the bonsai Roberto presents to Tona? Or perhaps the house, as container for this family? Or maybe the family itself is a totem of something larger, like the culture from which it comes, or all humankind? Avilés works in a generous, open-ended style, entrusting her characters to nonprofessional actors and treating their creations as impulsive, occasionally contradictory souls with lives that continue when the cameras aren’t rolling — three-dimensional beings only partly revealed to us, each one hiding unknowable mysteries all their own (consider the business with Tona’s paintings, which Cruz is seen smuggling out behind the family’s back).
The day under scrutiny will transform all of these characters, but none more than Sol. Minutes into the movie, immediately following the colorful restroom scene, Sol asks her mother if they can try wishing together. In that moment, the girl takes a deep breath, closes her eyes and asks the heavens “for Daddy not to die.” But cancer is a horrible disease, and Avilés doesn’t pretend otherwise. Tona struggles to make himself presentable for his guests, soiling his pants at one point. The adults may not be telling Sol the whole truth, but by the end of the day, she’s had time to figure it out. When Tona’s cake comes and he refuses to make a wish, she knows what that means.