Wednesday, February 7, 2024

A birthday party at death’s edge


   Totem from Mexican director Lila Aviles brings us into a house where a child must deal with the impending death of her father. 
   Leaning heavily on intimate close-ups, Aviles approximates the viewpoint of seven-year-old Sol (Naima Senties), a girl whose artist father (Mateo Garcia Elizondo) has been crippled by cancer.
   As if to add to the child's natural bewilderment about losing her father, the fractious family of Garcia's Tonatiuh has gathered for what will be his final birthday, a celebration in the face of death. Tona, as he's affectionately called, refuses chemo; he's had enough of suffering. 
  By the time we meet the family -- aunts, brothers, and a grandfather -- Tona has become nearly invisible in the house. He  spends most of his time in his room, where he's attended to by his nurse and caretaker (Teresita Sanchez). 
  Sol's mother (Iazua Larios), an actor who works in the theater, seems as devoted to her theatricality as to her husband. She drops Sol off at the family home and leaves to attend to other business.
  One of Tona's sisters (Montserrat  Maranon) clouds her grief with drink. Another sister (Marisol Gase) hires a spiritualist to try to save her brother, adding a weird comic flourish to the proceedings. 
  Aviles doesn't do much explaining, perhaps because she often presents the world as it might appear to Sol and her cousin (Saori Gurza), who's also too young to grasp what’s happening.
  Did I mention that grandpa (Alberto Amador) also has had cancer -- his of the larynx? He's now speaking through a device that his grandchildren find amusing. He doesn't.
   It’s possible to wonder whether the family isn’t engaged in a bustling exercise in avoidance. Commotion, chaos, and competition for the bathroom blur opportunities for focused attention. Animated by dread and party preparations, everyone stays busy.
   Sol is fascinated with the life in and around the house  -- snails and insects in particular. Perhaps she's wondering about the proliferation of living things whose existence has nothing to do with the preoccupations of the adults in Sol's life. Or maybe that’s just me.
  I sometimes wondered whether Aviles had over-committed to the kids' point of view -- not only visually but in terms of how she reveals relationships within the family. 
   There's a tradeoff, though: Totem has a lively present-tense feel, an immersion in the precarious moments before a multitude of feelings can be sorted. It's also one of the few movies that deals honestly with how people cope (or don't) with mortality.

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