The Cost of Living
By Matthew Eng
Dir. Lila Avilés, Mexico/Denmark/France/Netherlands, Sideshow/Janus Films
It begins with the false promise of relief. A mother crouches before her giggling daughter in a public restroom, urgently imploring her to poop, to no avail. This scatological standstill opens Tótem, the sophomore feature of Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés, with a misleading levity. It is only in the next scene, when seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes) reveals to her mom, Lucia (Iazua Larios), that she has just made a wish for her father not to die, that we understand the bathroom mischief as a mirthful reprieve in the midst of newly normal worry and woe.
The Chambermaid, Avilés’s austere, perceptive 2018 debut, focused unwaveringly on a housekeeper (Gabriela Cartol, who aided in Tótem’s casting) navigating devious coworkers and nagging guests while testing the limits of her autonomy in a high-end Mexico City hotel. In Tótem, the writer-director dilates her gaze to encompass the myriad members of a middle-class family on the brink of rupture, preparing for future grief. They have gathered to celebrate the birthday of Sol’s father, Tona (Mateo Garcia), a gaunt, fatigued, but still boyishly handsome painter in the final phase of a terminal bout of cancer. Doctor bills have depleted the family’s funds to the point that it appears they can no longer afford to keep Tona alive. No wonder a black crow hangs around the house’s periphery, its presence stating the obvious to those unable to accept the inevitable.
The hypervigilant, insatiably curious Sol (radiantly and sensitively illuminated by Sentíes in her screen debut) is the guide and focal point of this day-in-the-life chronicle, but Avilés does not confine her film to this child’s-eye view. She alights at various, spontaneous-seeming points on different figures in her ever-expanding cast of vividly drawn characters, catching them at various points of the party’s prolonged, topsy-turvy preparations. Chief among these organizers are Tona’s pugnacious sisters, the domineering, chain-smoking eldest Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) and the realist Nuria (Montserrat Marañon, a stand-out in the sprawling ensemble), the latter simultaneously foggy and fed up, perpetually nursing a drink, even when punctiliously recreating “Starry Night” on an intricate cake she made for a party she objects to throwing.
Shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio by Diego Tenorio, Tótem leaves no face unscanned, no guest unexamined, giving what could have been an indeterminate blur of partygoers tangible detail by which to distinguish each of them. Meddlesome, intermittently adorable children and insolent adolescents dart in and out of the frame. A medium-for-hire stalks through the house, burping, disparaging the art on the walls, and setting a piece of bread on fire, all in an effort to rid the space of negative spirits. A gay brother named Napo (Juan Francisco Maldonado) swans into the proceedings with organic groceries and a goldfish for his niece, his very existence unbeknownst to the audience until this point. In one scene, the camera pans and an elderly aunt and uncle are unexpectedly seated on the couch, warily surveying some woo-woo meditation among the immediate family, their premature, traffic-beating arrival omitted.
On paper, these characters may sound primed for coarse caricature, these scenarios potentially played for broad laughs. But Avilés tunes her film to a minor key, elegantly and arrestingly whipping up a fine frenzy of mayhem, mundanities, merriment, and doom. In crucial collaboration with Tenorio, whose agile camera is attuned to the movements and meetings of these actors, Avilés allows many of her dialogue-heaviest scenes to play out in the span of a single shot; because of this, emotional nuances emerge fluidly, organically, in the sharpening and slackening of tone during a long-simmering sisterly quarrel or the tender looks of concern shared between Tona and his daughter, kept apart to her dismay until the film’s last act. These long takes prioritize feelings and tensions that could fuel movies all their own, as when the camera captures the family’s crotchety patriarch (Alberto Amador), a therapist and widower who can only speak with an electrolarynx, stewing in tight-lipped chagrin after Napo’s boyfriend hands him a gift upon their initial introduction.
Backstory is scant in Tótem, exposition casually, sparingly relayed. These characters do not divulge their multitudes, but it is compelling and stirring enough to watch them race around each other, until finally confronted with anxieties that can no longer be muffled and a weariness that renders impossible the business of being, of behaving, of pretending that everything’s alright. Preciousness can be a liability here—in the exhibitive adorability and verbal precocity of its tykes or the clichéd, Andrea Arnold-esque eye for crawling insects and other critters. But Avilés checks these impulses with the spiky, piquant behaviors and irreverent utterances of her adult characters, particularly Alejandra and Nuria. Standing in marked contrast to these combustive sisters is Cruz, Tona’s nurse, played by the great Teresa Sánchez, who was the craftiest of The Chambermaid’s coworkers and whose performance in Juan Pablo González’s docufictional Dos estaciones (2022) remains one of the more engrossing lead performances in recent years. Sánchez’s warm, winking presence deepens her character in Tótem. She makes the attentive and patient care that Cruz lavishes on Tona into one of the film’s most affecting dynamics, though not without its thorny practicalities, clarified in a scene where Cruz delicately reminds Alejandra that she is two weeks behind on her pay; when she is given a fraction of the amount, she slips a bill into a piggy bank for her client’s medical fees.
It is this balance of pragmatism and fellow feeling that emblematizes the bonds between Avilés’s characters and makes her film such a graceful, luminous, and malleable portrait of love’s work amid mortal descent. In Tótem’s final minutes, a young girl’s will seems to bring time itself to a breath-stifling halt. Locking eyes with the suddenly static camera, illumined by the flicker of birthday candles, Sol seizes our attention with a steely stare for what feels like eons. Perhaps she has already been hardened by a knowledge usually acquired—if not accepted—with adulthood and the deterioration one observes and endures with age. We know that to live is to lose, and still we find ourselves grasping desperately at moments too perfect to surrender. No one blows out the candles here, but time nonetheless prevails.