Bitter Sugar

on October 11, 1996 by Jon Silberg
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Set in contemporary Havana, "Bitter Sugar" is a stark, revealing look at contemporary Cuba through the eyes of a fiercely pro-Castro youth (Rene Lavan) suddenly disillusioned with the government in which he has invested his faith. The wonderful performances, the clever direction, and the energizing cinematography and editing maximize the limitations of this low-budget black-and-white film.
At the core of "Bitter Sugar" is Cuba's rampant scarcity caused by the failure of Castro's revolution. The worthlessness of the country's own currency vis-a-vis the likes of dollars, pounds and lira has apparently transformed the island into an occupied nation in which domestic goods and services exist only for foreigners, while Cubans must deal with ever-increasing scarcity or try to escape to Miami by any means available. Director Leon Ichaso ("Sugar Hill") deftly portrays this world gutted of its hope and promise.
Enter a girlfriend (Mayte Vilan) who turns out to be prostituting herself to foreign businessmen; a rebellious brother, a lover of forbidden rock 'n roll, who would rather contract AIDS deliberately than continue to submit to constant police harassment; and a father (brilliantly underplayed by Miguel Guitierrez) who trades in his career in medicine to perform in a tourists-only piano bar at which a night's tips are worth more than a month's salary as a psychiatrist. That this callow youth should open his eyes so suddenly to so obvious a crisis seems a bit of a stretch--a simple device to open the audiences eyes, so to speak. But the writing is so sharp, the interplay among the characters--particularly the two lovers--so real that whatever detriment this is to the drama is minimal. Only the incident in which the brother and his rock-music friends inject themselves with AIDS-tainted blood feels polemical, and this form of "protest" has actually occurred in Cuba. Similarly, it has been reported that a large contingent of formerly respectable young women have in fact recently turned to prostitution, the promise of precious foreign currency too great to ignore.
"Bitter Sugar" essays the effect of politics on people's lives on a level worthy of comparison to those that came out of Italy's neorealism movement. And, similar to films such as "The Bicycle Thief" or "Open City," the characters who people "Bitter Sugar" are strong enough to almost never be overshadowed by the film's political agenda. Starring Rene Lavan, Mayte Vilan, Miguel Guitierrez and Larry Villanueva. Directed by Leon Ichaso. Written by Leon Ichaso and Orestes Matacena. Produced by Leon Ichaso and Jaime Pina. A First Look release. Drama. Not yet rated. Opens Oct. 11 Miami, Oct. 18 NY/LA.
Tags: Starring Rene Lavan, Mayte Vilan, Miguel Guitierrez, Larry Villanueva. Directed by Leon Ichaso. Written by Leon Ichaso, Orestes Matacena, Produced by Leon Ichaso, Jaime Pina, First Look, Drama
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