While Tona rests in the bedroom, his sisters and nieces scramble around the house in anticipation of guests. Between baking cakes and fighting over time getting ready in the bathroom, the chaos of the household contains a familiar familial nostalgia. It’s the typical conversational movement between bickering, gossip, and catching up that’s inherent to hosting a family event. But over the course of the film, the emotional stakes begin to flood the air, permeating the space with a newer, deeper tension and cracking away at the family’s facades.
“Tōtem” has a stunning homemade quality. Seeming to be almost exclusively shot handheld, we feel as though we are a fly on the wall in moments of sweeping intimacy and blanket innocuousness alike. Each of the film’s characters, from Sol to her aunt Nuria (Montserrat Marañon), are given so much emotional subtext that we can find ourselves, both in history and present, applicable to their methods of coping and understanding. This depth is accounted for not through explicit dialogue, but quiet moments of solitary behavior that are entrusted to the stunning performances of the actors.
From Nuria’s hyper-fixation on Tona’s cake to her self-isolation and inability to be in the moment, we witness her restlessness: energy in desperate need of an output becomes placed anywhere tangible. For Sol, the film contains an animal motif that runs adjacent to her experience as she collects snails, converses with parrots, and muses on deadly snakes and the wing strength of hummingbirds. A reminder of nature’s dominance, these animals find their way into the domestic space, entering the home with the same creeping pace as the looming fate of her father. Sol’s interactions with them change as she comes to grips cognitively. She begins by moving the snails deep into the plants outside of her home to purposefully lining them up on the walls, an almost acceptance of the inevitable.