Producers: Tatiana Graullera, Lila Avilés and Louise Riousse   Director: Lila Avilés  Screenplay: Lila Avilés   Cast: Naíma Sentíes, Monserrat Marañón, Marisol Gasé, Saori Gurza, Mateo García Elizondo, Teresita Sánchez, Juan Francisco Maldonado, Iazua Larios and Alberto Amador   Distributor: Sideshow/Janus Films

Grade: B+

An impending family tragedy brings everyone together for a final gathering in Lila Avilés’ “Tótem,” a supple, touching drama seen through the eyes of Sol (Naíma Sentíes), an angelic seven-year-old girl whose dying father Tona (Mateo García Elizondo) is about to celebrate what will certainly be his last birthday.  His relatives and friends congregate to pay tribute to his life while his daughter comes to uneasy terms with the thought of losing him.

That, in a nutshell, is the narrative of the film, but the simple premise is fleshed out in the form of a collage in which cinematographer Diego Tenorio’s camera wanders, as Sol does, through the home of Tona’s widowed father Roberto (Alberto Amador), where his son lies bedridden under the tender care of a nurse named Cruz (Teresita Sánchez).  There is a brief prologue showing Sol’s mother Lucía (Iazua Larios), a high-spirited actress, dropping her off before leaving to pick up costumes needed for a musical sketch that she and the girl will be performing for Tona at the party; otherwise the entire scenario unfolds at the house.

Among those the camera concentrates on is Roberto, a retired professor who communicates via an electrolarynx, spends most of his time in his study alone, protesting when his solitude is interrupted.  His daughter Nuria (Montserrat Marañón) is obsessively making a cake for the party, pestered by her young daughter Esther (Saori Gurza) and her cat; when the first cake burns in the oven, she has to start all over again, and even after the party has begun she’s still drunkenly decorating the second with a nighttime scene of the sky.  Her sister, cigarette-smoking Alejandra (Marisol Gasé), brings a psychic into the house to clear it of evil forces with bundles of sticks and, at the end, a burning loaf of bread, while trying to dye her hair and fretting that the family is running out of funds to pay for advanced medical treatment for Tona.

Sol observes with serene detachment much of what’s going on among the adults, and with her older cousins, who spend most of their time on the phone of playing video games until commandeered by Alejandra into helping to clean the place up.  She brightens up when her uncle Napo (Juan Francisco Maldonado) brings her a gift—a goldfish swimming in a plastic bag—but is pained that she’s not been able to see her father for so long; she fears he may no longer love her.  Finally Cruz allows her to visit with Tona, and they enjoy a few minutes together before the party starts. 

It’s a large outdoor affair, with academic colleagues and adoring students joining the family in expressing their feelings to Tona, who has summoned what strength remains to him to sit smiling through the speeches, some of them distinctly long-winded, and the skit Lucia and Sol perform.  Nuria brings out the cake, which is enthusiastically applauded, and Cruz leaves for the evening, reminding Alejandra that they’ve gotten behind in her pay.  Roberto gives Tona a gift—a bonsai tree he’s been carefully pruning.  After her performance, Sol observes the party perched above the action, shooing away a drone camera sent to record her reaction.

Aviles, her cast, and the crew—production designer Nohemi Gonzalez, costumers Nora Solis and Jimena Fernández, and Tenorio (using the boxy Academy aspect ratio)—fashion a naturalistic environment for us to watch this busy, affecting portrait of a loving but sometimes quarrelsome family trying to fend off their grief over impending loss with an evening to gratefully embrace what they’re about to lose.  Editor Omar Guzmán weaves together the camera’s peregrinations, which include moments when animals—the cat, the goldfish, a bird, a scuttling scorpion—take center stage, into a kind of slow cinematic dance, abetted by Guido Berenblum’s sound design and the a score by Thomas Becka notable for its restraint, though it makes room for a Donizetti aria at a significant moment.

And throughout there’s the enigmatic face of Sol, illuminated by love for her father and, at the close, by the candles flickering atop what will probably be his final birthday cake.