'Virus Tropical': Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Timbo Estudio/Santiago Cacedo/Powerpaola
Charmingly authentic, if none too deep or dramatic.

The black-and-white screen adaptation of Power Paola’s acclaimed graphic novel is a girl's coming-of-age tale set in middle-class Ecuador and Colombia.

Power Paola is the nom de plume of Paola Gaviria, whose life from conception to the cusp of adulthood is told with grace and self-irony in her autobiographical graphic novel, Virus Tropical, which has found readers in Latin America and Europe. Here, her detailed, immersive black-and-white line drawings are beautifully transferred to the screen by video artist and animator Santiago Caicedo, who previously worked with her on the short film Uyuyui!  This light reflection on growing up in a close-knit family of three sisters has a sensibility earmarked for teenagers, and should particularly connect to girls.

Set between Ecuador and Colombia, the story is full of strong-willed women who move around a lot. Its perspective on middle-class life in South America is fresh and engaging, even if the focus remains at the level of family ties, without any ambition to make statements about society as a whole. After premiering in Berlin’s Generation 14-Plus, its next stop will be SXSW.

There's very little drama in the story of Paola’s early life, yet her frank narration holds the attention throughout. It’s a family with some oddities. Her shrewd, loving mother is a psychic who reads the future in dominoes (!) for the president of the country; her father, Uriel, is a defrocked but still religious Catholic priest. As Paola tells it, she was conceived miraculously in Quito, Ecuador, in 1976, when her mother got pregnant for the third time, despite having had her tubes tied. The doctors couldn’t believe it and misdiagnosed the baby as a “tropical virus.” It’s a nice intro that promises more magic realism to come. Instead, Paola’s trajectory is that of a normal girl playing with Barbie dolls, then going to school, meeting boys and rebelling against adult restrictions.

Her arrival in the family is met with smiles by her older sister, Claudia, but with jealousy by middle sister Patty. As they grow up these relationships become inverted: Claudia enters adolescence preoccupied with clothes, makeup and modeling and at permanent war with their mother, and the sensible Patty ends up as her surrogate mother and best friend.

Paola’s artistic talent is encouraged by her kindly but strict father, and she wins a drawing contest and a chance to meet Pope John Paul II, who is coming to Quito on a papal visit. It’s the first time we see her at the international airport, waiting futilely to give him her drawing. There will be many more trips to the airport: when her father leaves to live with his shrewish elderly mother; when the family moves to Cali, Colombia; when Claudia gets married and moves to Galapagos island; when Paola and her friends go on a swinging vacation. Life flies by, recounted with self-assured passion but without nearly as much detail as the fascinating maze of black-and-white line drawings onscreen.

The point of view seems to be the mother’s as often as it is Paola’s, until this admirable woman moves back to Ecuador and drops out of the story. Sharing an apartment in Cali with Patty, the teenage Paola (well voiced by Maria Cecilia Sanchez) finds new horizons opening up. At first the kids at school make fun of her Ecuadoran accent, but soon the boys take an interest in the straggly-haired blonde with spots on her face. This being Colombia, teenage drug use is a major issue, but it is a trap Paola is strong-minded enough to largely avoid. This being an autobiography, nothing really drastic happens when she and her stoned friends whiz around winding mountain roads at night on their way to some forbidden club or other. Her dream of being a creative, independent woman triumphs over all temptation, offering a positive role model for the film’s youthful viewers.

Production company: Timbo Estudio, Ikki Films
Cast: Maria Cecilia Sanchez, Martina Toro, Alejandra Borrero, Diego Leon Hoyos, Mara Gutierrez, Maria Parada, Camila Valenzuela, Javiera Valenzuela, Zoraida Duque
Director: Santiago Caicedo
Screenwriters: Enrique Lozano based on Powerpaola’s graphic novel  
Producers: Carolina Barrera Quevedo, Edwina Liard, Nidia Santiago
Executive producer: Carolina Barrera Quevedo
Art director: Paola Gaviria
Music: Adriana Garcia Galan
World sales: Stray Dogs
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation 14-Plus)
96 minutes