'Tótem' is director Lila Avilés' love letter to her daughter — and to Mexico Director Lila Avilés' film is a celebration of family and spirituality in contemporary Mexican society. And it's a beacon of how women filmmakers are becoming the new face of Mexican cinema.

A birthday party for a dying father chronicles childhood before loss in 'Tótem'

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"Totem" is Mexico's official submission for this year's Oscars. It is the second movie by 41-year-old filmmaker Lila Aviles, who made the film as a gift for her daughter. Aviles is part of a new generation of filmmakers from Mexico and has quickly become one of the brightest stars of international cinema. "Totem" opens in American theaters this month, and NPR's Isabella Gomez Sarmiento has the story.

ISABELLA GOMEZ SARMIENTO, BYLINE: Director Lila Aviles uses the same word to describe how she raised her daughter and how she learned to make films.

LILA AVILES: I was always kind of playing. I was playful.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Aviles became a mom at a young age, and she didn't go to film school. Instead, she worked - in theater, in wardrobe, in production - and she says she always trusted her instincts, both as a mom and as an artist.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, vocalizing).

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Now, her latest film, "Totem," drops viewers into a single afternoon in a family home in Mexico City. The warm, kind of chaotic house, full of art, pets, people, is viewed through the eyes of 7-year-old Sol.


MONTSERRAT MARANON: (As Nuri, speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: She's quietly watching her family prepare for her father's birthday party.

AVILES: It's a unique day in this girl's life and in this family and friends' structure.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Sol's father is sick with cancer. This birthday will be his last. As she wanders through the house, Sol's sense of grief is already clear. Film critic Carlos Aguilar wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "Totem" is an understated miracle.

CARLOS AGUILAR: This young protagonist is asking the questions about death and mortality and what happens after we're gone.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: At one point, Sol asks Siri when the world will end.


NAIMA SENTIES: (As Sol, speaking Spanish)?

SIRI: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: "Totem" is Aviles' love letter to her teenage daughter, who also lost her father when she was close to her character Sol's age. Aguilar says Aviles honors both Sol's innocence and emotional maturity.

AGUILAR: What Lila Aviles does brilliantly is that she allows for this young protagonist to sort of, like, fully engage with those emotions. And I think that's one of the ways that she manages not to make it overly sentimental or predictable in an emotional way.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: But "Totem" does not linger on this Mexican family's darkness. It's also about childhood, beauty and nature. Scenes of Sol's grandfather snipping a bonsai tree are interspersed with shots of insects crawling in the garden. Director Lila Aviles sees all these moments as deeply connected to the human story.

AVILES: Birds fly with this magnetism that we don't understand, no? Or sharks travel in water with this also magnetism. And I guess we also have it - no? - as humans, animals. And we forget, no? And it's not like, oh, she's mystical - no? - because she's Mexican. No, not at all. No. It's only this sensibility - no? - that you you can feel some connection, and that's it.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: "Totem" is Avilas' second feature. 2018's, "The Chambermaid," also Mexico's submission for the Oscars, follows a young woman cleaning rooms at a luxury hotel in Mexico City.


GOMEZ SARMIENTO: It's a stark commentary on class and gender in Aviles' rapidly gentrifying hometown.


GABRIELA CARTOL: (As Evelia, speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Both films hone in on womanhood in Mexican and Latin American cultures. Aviles follows her characters as they go about their daily tasks, bathing a child, cleansing a house of evil spirits and vacuuming a carpet.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Spanish).

AVILES: They don't need to be a heroine to be a heroine, no? They are normal, day-to-life heroines.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Aviles represents a new wave of rising filmmakers from Mexico, says critic Carlos Aguilar.

AGUILAR: It's kind of undeniable that, in the last decade, at least, some of the more important films to come out of Mexico have been directed by women.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That's partially thanks to government funding that has greatly bolstered the country's film industry.

AGUILAR: The government's support over the last few decades really kind of diversified the voices that were telling the stories. And by that token, you know, we started getting more stories from, you know, women's perspectives.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Aviles says she grew up in a matriarchal family, and so centering women is natural for her. But she says she writes what she knows, and what's important for her is to move away from the on-screen stereotypes of Mexico - violence, poverty and trauma.

AVILES: And obviously, it's a part of what is happening in Mexico. But I also love the other part of Mexico that can be super loving, no? There are so hardworking people, and I tried to bring that love to "Totem," no? I guess that - for me, that "Totem" is love.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Love for her culture, for her camera and for her daughter.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, NPR News.


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