To describe the Mexican film Tótem as a cancer drama is misleading. Yes, the film revolves around seven-year-old Sol (played by Naíma Sentíes) and her father, Tona (Mateo García Elizondo), who is in the late stages of a terminal cancer diagnosis. However, there is no melodrama here, no heightened conflict, or soap-opera stakes. Instead, Tótem presents us with a beautiful ode to family that is steeped in intense realism and love.
The second feature length film by director Lila Avilés, following her 2018 film The Chambermaid, Tótem has already gathered momentum and rave reviews. Debuting at Berlinale in February 2023, Tótem was nominated for the Golden Bear award and won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. It has won major awards at several other festivals, including Hong Kong, Jerusalem, and Lima, and was selected as the Mexican nomination for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.
This slice-of-life drama follows Tona’s large family as they prepare for his birthday, a celebration that may be his last. Sol is caught in the middle, wanting to experience the excitement of the upcoming party, yet weighed down by internal turmoil as she attempts to process her father’s illness. There is something beautiful about the main character being a child who is too young to fully comprehend the nature of death, yet old enough to feel that something is wrong.
For anyone who has experienced a large family gathering, the film has an inescapable sense of intimacy and realism. Filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio and featuring naturalistic performances, it almost feels like you are watching someone’s home videos. The overlapping dialogue captures the chaos that emerges when family gets together, and the performances feel true-to-life — the child actors are astonishingly natural, delivering performances that feel authentic and personal.
Each character feels nuanced and complex, with distinct relationships to one another that evolve as the night progresses and the chaos continues to unfold. The world of Tótem is teeming with life, as each room of the house is full of laughter, voices, children, plants, animals, and even insects. Baked in warm tones, the film is sentimental without being saccharine, blending moments of humor and levity with sadness and depth. It is a nuanced, delicate portrayal of family life, seen through the eyes of one of its youngest members.
Tótem is a highlight of the 2023 fall festival season. It is the kind of movie that makes you want to be kind to others, to spend time with children, and to really love your family. Perhaps this is the best thing that a movie can do.
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Tótem—Mexico/Denmark/France. Dialog in Spanish. Directed by Lila Avilés. Running time 95 min. First released February 20, 2023 (Berlinale). Starring Naíma Sentíes, Montserrat Marañon, Marisol Gasé, Saori Gurza, Mateo García Elizondo.
This article is part of Cinema Escapist’s dedicated coverage of the 2023 Vancouver International Film Festival.