[Seattle International Film Festival] Virus Tropical (2017) - Reviewed

Virus Tropical screened at SIFF

Being a fly on the wall of someone’s life, following the ins and outs of a person’s everyday existence, wouldn’t be a terribly interesting endeavor. Think about all the time a person spends simply being, without any particular drama or adventure occurring to uproot them; all the time spent having conversations about mundane things with family, playing with toys as a child, or even just taking up space in the background while others talk and plan all around them. There would be moments of angst here and there, a few exciting trips to other places, reactions to events that affect the person – but, by and large, a person’s biography is a lot of watching and waiting, talking and taking in. So, the question is, does an animated autobiography make for interesting film?

Ecuadorian-born Colombian graphic artist “Power Paola”, Paola Gaviria (voiced here as a character and a narrator by María Cecilia Sánchez), certainly does her best to answer to the affirmative with Virus Tropical, a starkly illustrated adaptation of the autobiographical graphic novel she penned with the same name. Utilizing the same monochromatic, cartoonish style, Santiago Caicedo directs the tale of Paola’s improbable conception and birth, childhood in Quito, and adolescence in Colombia. It is a snapshot of family life that focuses on the women, in particular – making the choice in title very interesting indeed, as life itself is a “virus tropical” for Paola, whose presence within her mother is diagnosed as such due to the tubal ligation that would have made pregnancy difficult to achieve.

There is a fragmented narrative here, but it very much mirrors the way one looks back on their early life in snippets and vignettes, with loose variations on transitions in between to tie each scene to the others. For much of her childhood, Paola plays a background character as she silently sketches as she listens to her mother and sisters talking – life here is rich with opinionated women, each with her own tier of reality. Hilda (Alejandra Borrero), the matriarch of the Gaviria clan, who reads dominoes like tea leaves to tell the future, and who must raise her three girls mostly independent of her husband Uriel (Diego Leon Hoyos) as his presence comes and goes like ocean waves. Eldest sister Claudia (Camila Valenzuela), the rebellious wild child who takes her father’s absence out on the rest of the family, and eventually moves to the Galapagos Islands to start one of her own. Sensible Patty (Mara Gutiérrez), who becomes Paola’s rock and safe space during adolescence, but who started out jealous of her unexpected little sister. These are very colorful women, despite the film’s palette, and they clearly have many stories.

But we’re treated only to what Paola herself knows of these stories, and there is a sense of incompleteness to the narrative as a result. The animation, though, is striking – there is very little grayscale, and each character is rendered in simple, unembellished lines and contrasting black and white. So much of Virus Tropical’s world is as straightforward as young people would remember it, without nuance or even a great deal of detail, which makes for interesting symbolism but also makes the story difficult to piece together in certain places.

The starkness doesn’t end with the style of the animation, however. This is a film that doesn’t shy away from depicting nudity or drug use, but doesn’t linger on either. These are merely details – this is the way life is, and there’s no shock value to any of it. In fact, each explicit sex or drug scene is presented so matter-of-factly that it just feels like a natural part of the narrative, just as it would in memories. But therein, it waffles as to whether or not these scenes are really necessary – and, like much of the rest of the film, it’s difficult to justify or explain their existence succinctly, as they don’t really add much of real interest.

As a series of slice-of-life memories, Virus Tropical is visually interesting. But beyond this, if it’s attempting to make statements about feminism, or South American culture, it does so too subtly to be satisfying. Paola’s graphic novel, on which this film is based, is sufficient to tell the same story, and due to its medium is a bit less puzzling in terms of stringing its narrative and illustrating the inner workings of its characters. 

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-Dana Culling