Director – Santiago Caicedo – 2017 – Colombia, Ecuador – 97m
Currently streaming on MUBI: scroll down for the link to subscribe.
Quito, 1976. Paola (voice as child: Martina Toro)is born as the youngest of three sisters, Claudia (Camila Valenzuela) is the oldest and Patty (voice as child: Maria Parada) the middle one. Her father Uriel (Diego León Hoyos) is a Catholic priest supposedly retired from the church but in practice still working. Apart from one daughter’s first communion, we see virtually nothing of his life as a priest. Fairly early on in the narrative he departs for another city to carry on his ministry, leaving his wife Hilda (Alejandra Borrero), the girls and the family housemaid Chavela (Javiera Valenzuela) behind. Although he returns to the family much later on, he is never more than a peripheral figure in what quickly becomes a story of a girl growing up in a mostly female environment.
At home, Paola plays alone with Barbie dolls and a lone Ken while mum struggles with the disobedient Claudia, worried that she’ll ruin her life with the wrong boy. Claudia turns this around to study fashion design in Italy, then unexpectedly marries someone and moves away to the Galapagos Islands at the last minute instead of going to college. This leaves Paola (voice as teenager: María Cecilia Sánchez) with Patty (voice as teenager: Maria Gutiérrez) who becomes the youngest child’s confidante. Paola goes to a girls’ school and wishes that she had more men in her life. Eventually Patty too wants to leave home for college in Cali just as Claudia’s marriage is falling apart.
Mum, three daughters and one grandson end up moving to Cali where Patty is studying. Paola goes to a new, mixed, much more liberal school there and initially struggles with the less traditional attitudes of the kids than she’s used to. As she starts to take an interest in boys at age 14, Patty warns her not to go to any nightclubs. Of course, she does so at the first opportunity. When dad reveals he’s lost the family savings by giving it to a family for safekeeping who vanished with the money, mum and three daughters are forced to work to make ends meet. While Claudia works as an aerobics instructor and Patty a receptionist, Paola draws designs for a T-shirt company as well as selling chocolate brownies at school. And she begins to navigate the complexities of romantic relationships.
This has been compared to that other (mostly) black and white, indigenous, graphic novel bio-pic adaptation Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, 2007) although unlike that film Virus Tropical was not directed by the comic’s original writer. That person was Power Paola who co-wrote the script and art directed the movie. Nevertheless, it’s a deeply idiosyncratic piece of work nicely paced by director Caicedo and his team. The characters are well written and performed while the visuals prove striking in their distinctive use of line. You feel involved with this world created in moving drawings and it’s impossible to imagine the film having the same effect if it were attempted in live action: this is a film that couldn’t really exist as anything other than animation. Kudos to MUBI for picking it up.
Virus Tropical is currently streaming on MUBI. If you have a subscription, watch the film via this link.
Here’s the trailer: