Monday, August 29, 2011

Film Review: Bitter Sugar

"Bitter Sugar" *** (out of ****)

It has been my opinion that the majority of Cuban films suffer from the same problem. The films of Cuba are made strickly for Cubans to see and no one else. Of the handful of Cuban films I have seen nearly none of them portray the political climate of the country correctly. Most of the Cuban films I have seen have revolved around the Castro revolution. All of them have been pro-Castro. What I've never been able to figure out is what was wrong with the Batista regime? What was the country like? What lead to Castro?

The Cuban film "Bitter Sugar (Azucar Amarga 1997) doesn't answer any of these questions but it is a remarkable film none-the-less. The film deals with, at the time, modern day Cuba. Castro has been in power for decades. His grip is firmly felt throughout the country. But "Bitter Sugar" does something few Cuban films have done. First it shows us what Cubans are feeling. It truly gives us a sense of the country and what the people of Cuba think and feel. Secondly, it is anti-Castro (I assume because of this the film was not shot in Cuba but rather Santo Domingo).

Of the more modern films from Cuba I have seen, they seem to suggest everything is not okay in their homeland. The film, Nada (2001) disguised itself as a quirky romance, but, beneath its surface was the story of a woman who wanted to escape a repressed country. Here too in "Bitter Sugar" we are dealing with characters who want to escape a repressed country, only this film makes it its center theme. And that's what I admire most about "Bitter Sugar". The film displays a level of frustration and despair. We can almost sense how hopeless things are in Cuba. There is no social advancement.

The hero of the film is Gustavo (Rene Lavan) a bright young college student who has the chance to leave Cuba and study in Prague. But, you see, Rene and his family are Communist. Devoted communist in fact. They even have pictures of Fidel hanging on their wall. They believe in what Castro stands for. Gustavo's father, Dr. Valdez (Miguel Gutierrez) remembers well when Castro took power. He felt it was going to be a great moment of change. A new beginning. But Cuba is still facing hard times. Still, one can't abandon the great leader. At least that is what Gustavo believes.

Gustavo's brother, Bobby (Larry Villanueva) does not share his family's political views. He is a musician who embraces American music. Gustavo soon meets a beautiful woman, Yolando (Mayte Vilan). She also does not support Castro. Can these two people change Gustavo and his father's mind?

Without spoiling much, the majority of the characters in "Bitter Sugar" learn the bitter truth about Cuba. They each face hardships and disappointments. Maybe the great leader isn't so great after all. In Hungarian cinema, which was also at one time a Communist country, there is a filmmaker named Istvan Szabo. He usually makes films which concern the theme, with great power comes great corruption. I always think of Szabo when I watch Cuban films and that particular theme. Isn't that exactly what happened with Castro? Here was a man people put faith in. A man who said he would end the corruption which plagued his beloved country. But as soon as he gained power he realized he liked it and would not reliquish it. With his great power came great corruption.

I have a hunch "Bitter Sugar" shows us what Cuba is really like. What the people are really experiencing. Other Cuban films like "Guaguasi" (1983), "Hello Hemingway" (1990) and "Clandestinos" (1988) did not present us with an accurate portrait of Cuba and the issues which the country faces. They didn't give us a feeling of the times. That was their downfall. "Bitter Sugar" has some emotionally strong and powerful moments. Moments when character make grand speeches but their words ring true. Their feelings seem sincere. We are drawn into their despair.

The film was directed by Leon Ichaso. He has worked on some American TV shows like "Miami Vice" and even directed "Saturday Night Live" back in the early eighties. He says the film is based on his own experiences and the experiences of most Cuban-Americans. I believe him. In fact, if someone is Cuban and decides to watch this movie, I'm almost not sure if that is a good idea. I would imagine that person would become so sad to see what their country has become.

For the rest of us though, it is a compelling and disturbing look inside Cuba.