From the first moments of Tótem, it’s easy to think about Lucas Dhont, which is never a good thing. Like Dhont’s recently released Close, Lila Avilés’ sophomore feature is shot in that familiar festival style: tight close-ups, handheld and with a shallow depth of field. If this approach, at first, endeavored to push a sense of reality and a feeling of being in-the-moment, it now only signifies a festival origin story and suggests that the film won’t have much life outside of that enclosed ecosystem. Dhont breaks through this because it’s all a front, a thin layer of prestige to cover his cruelty and sensationalism; he is ultimately shameless in a way that Avilés clearly isn’t. That might make her film seem a little slight, but it’s probably the better for it. When shot in this way, the opening scene, where the young Sol (Naíma Sentíes) and her mother Lucía (Iazua Larios) mess around in a public bathroom, seems a little insistent on its own openness, on how it’s showing the life of women, and people more generally, in an unadorned way, but there is still a real sense of life to it. Unlike in Dhont’s films, where everything reveals itself to be an empty signifier — where every character is a symbol for some hare-brained idea — Avilés’ film feels authentic even underneath its signifiers of authenticity.
This contrasts quite interestingly with the film’s title. Tótem plays out in loose and incidental scenes, as Sol’s large family prepares for a birthday and goodbye party for her dying father, Tona (Mateo García Elizondo); it’s a film of specificities, and so nothing seems obviously totemic. Except maybe for the bonsai tree the voiceless patriarch is pruning, but that symbol doesn’t mean much when confronted with the reality of his family, where no amount of pruning can contain the growing chaos. The film’s project, then, seems paradoxical: to create something symbolic through the specific. This is much like Ozu’s films, of much calmer family incidents and entanglement, that accumulate far beyond their specific and literal material to something almost transcendent.
But, as with symbols, Avilés is suspicious of transcendence, of anything too spiritual, or she’s at least conflicted. When a middle-aged exorcist visits and starts burping out the spirits, it seems obvious that that’s not what haunts this place, but when Tona’s friends give speeches at his party and try to frame their friendship — and, more importantly, his imminent death — through a spiritual framework, there is still some sense that they’re forcing it. But the feelings these ideas conjure ring true. Unfortunately, this can’t be said of the film itself, which, despite Avilés’ formidable ambitions, never quite takes off. It might be that suspicion that stops it, that constant doubt smudging the edges until it becomes more vague and elusive than it should be.
But Tótem’s ultimate failing comes from the perspective it’s told from, that of the seven-year-old Sol. As she looks on quietly at the chaos surrounding her, she embodies many of the same clichés about childhood that Close peddled: namely, the idea that children have a kind of magical innocence; that they have some deeper insight into the adult world since they are not yet burdened by its pressures, despite the fact that they have been subjected to almost nothing else — their lives are so defined by these rules they have almost no context for. This might give a different perspective on them, but it’s hardly a better one. To know how something works specifically is to know it better than merely having felt its weight. Sure, the justifications that prop up the way the world works haven’t yet been formed, but neither have the objections. Things simply are as they are. That profound disempowerment is part of what makes childhood so isolating, and is probably where this archetype of the distant, almost voyeuristic child who blankly takes everything in, comes from; when everything is beyond your understanding or control, all you can do is watch.
Of course, adults can also be blind to these structures, but that’s usually for different reasons. When so entangled within the minutiae and daily struggles of one’s own life, it’s hard to take the time or energy to look at it more broadly (and then even more time and energy is needed to do anything about it). But this isn’t glamorized in the same way; it isn’t imbued with the same magical thinking, probably because this feeling of disempowerment is much more present in the lives of the people who tell these stories and reproduce these archetypes. And so, while it might seem a stretch to call Tótem nostalgic, there is something idealistic in the character of Sol. It’s not that she’s lacking in complexity or even a little prickliness, but there is an avoidance in not showing the ways that an intelligent child interacts with the world around her. That lack of context which brings this innocence and fear is also what allows children to be uniquely cruel. As with language, they learn partially through imitation, and so they naturally replicate the cruelty of the world around them, empowered by that totalizing sense of the way things are supposed to be. Without this, unlike so much of the film that surrounds her, Sol is flattened into a totem, a symbol of childhood.
Maybe that’s what makes the ending, where all the ambiguities in Sol’s life become sharpened into a specific and painful form as she realizes what it really means for her father to die, somewhat unconvincing. But this quite brilliantly conceived scene would likely still hit if not for the form, which suddenly shifts from an insistence on reality to an insistence on significance. Everything points toward it, from Sol’s long glare at the camera to the soundtrack’s heavy, dooming drone, to the loud snap of the candles on her father’s birthday cake. These don’t heighten because they take away the sense of accumulation that the film was building toward: there can be no leap to this reverse transcendence, this powerful awareness of material reality, when Avilés takes that leap herself and simply tells us that it’s happening.
DIRECTOR: Lila Avilés; CAST: Naíma Sentíes, Montserrat Marañón, Marisol Gasé, Saori Gurza; DISTRIBUTOR: Sideshow/Janus Films; IN THEATERS: January 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 35 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.5.