By Jake Watt
19th March 2020

Life, observed and examined. A cast of characters go about their daily lives, making observations and being themselves.

What separates "slice of life" as a genre from the literal meaning of the phrase (which would encompass nearly all fiction) is the emphasis on the very moment, with the intent of focusing the audience on that moment rather than using that moment as part of a narrative.

Telling the coming-of-age story of a predominantly female family's struggle to grow and find happiness through the joys and hardships of adolescence, director Santiago Caicedo's 'Virus Tropical' is a full-length animated feature inspired by the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name by Colombian-Ecuadorian illustrator Power Paola.

The story begins in South America, specifically Quito, Ecuador in 1976. The opening sequence sees a man and a woman are having vigorous, noisy sex, while the raindrops that hammer down outside a bedroom turn into spermatozoa in a wriggly race through the woman's fallopian tubes.


Hilda (voiced by Alejandra Borrero) had undergone a tubal ligation some time beforehand. "Do I have worms?" she asks her local physician when she notices her swelling belly. One doctor dismisses her five-month pregnant condition as the result of gas. Another thinks it that it might be a psychological malady. Another suggests the titular "Virus Tropical". The resulting baby is the author and narrator herself, Paola (Maria Cecilia Sanchez).

Paola's father, Uriel (Diego Leon Hoyos), has left the priesthood to raise a family with Hilda. They already have two girls, Claudia (Camila Valenzuela) and Patty (Mara Gutiérrez), by the time Paola comes unexpectedly along.

As a baby, Paola is doted on by Claudia and resented by Patty, but that dynamic reverses when Patty makes her first communion and Claudia becomes strikingly beautiful as a teen, especially after Uriel leaves his family to return home to Medellín. Paola's mother, who makes her living as a psychic who reads fortunes using dominos, is forced to raise her three daughters alone with resilience and drive, and the most impactful scenes of the story revolve around her struggles and sacrifices as a mother.

The film's art depicts a world with grim realities  -  from childbirth to drug use to the mental and emotional strain of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Sex, in particular, plays a major role in the film's plot and themes.

Paola's family is a frayed patchwork of tension and love - the members steal one another's chocolate, move to Colombia from Ecuador, pierce their ears, and sob along to telenovelas. Passive-aggression runs rampant, a simmering stew of squabbles and endearments. The sisters are snotty, the mothers are overbearing, the fathers are foolish, but isn't that messiness the very meaning of family?

'Virus Tropical' is all about the rebellious and awkward transitions of growing up, and uses a striking colour palette of black and white to illustrate its matter-of-fact views on sex, patriarchy and society. The film is animated in a gritty, choppy style that forces viewers to pay attention to the movements of its characters in highly detailed environments, with areas of heavy texture (hair, floorboards, fabric) set against empty, open shapes. It's not unlike a moving woodcut.

The film's art depicts a world with grim realities  -  from childbirth to drug use to the mental and emotional strain of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Sex, in particular, plays a major role in the film's plot and themes. Yet Caidedo's film is also high-spirited, full of keen observations, and refreshingly feminist.

As we watch Paola's birth and follow her up to young adulthood, often through dark and unforgiving circumstance, the film showcases the relationships and friendships that come and go as one grows up and struggles to find a fulfilling existence. 'Virus Tropical' covers familiar ground, as far as autobiographical films go, but the details ring true, and the film's heartfelt honesty enlivens every scene.

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