BITTER SUGAR (AZUCAR AMARGA) (1996) *** 1/2
Those points are moot however, since the film seems to have had a low distribution profile. This is sad as "qua" film, "Bitter Sugar" is excellently made and, for me, fascinating.
The setting is Havana, in fairly recent times not specified except for the fact that the Soviet Union had not yet dissolved. Economically, Cuba's living standards are awful. Gustavo, a good-looking, bright University student is the son of psychiatrist Dr. Valdez and the brother of hirsute rock musician Bobby. The boys' beautiful mother had died in accident some years back.
Gustavo, an idealistic product of Castroism, is the "Hombre Nuevo" (the New Man) of the Revolution, though, with his sense of humor he is no rabid fanatic. He wins a scholarship to study aeronautics in Prague -- which, as someone later tells him mockingly, is a useless skill in Cuba.
Gustavo meets Yolanda, a pretty dancer with a great figure. They fall in love. But their affair is enormously complicated and affected by most apects of life in Cuba: the lack of many basic necessities, censorship, taboos, repression. The government is desperately trying to bring in tourists whose dollars-only beaches and hotels are closed to Cubans other than personnel. It is also on a frantic search for foreign investors, while, ironically, Castro harangues the crowds about the Revolution sweeping out capitalism. There are additional, personal complications, like the "rockero" brother getting into trouble with the authorities, or Yolanda's mother disapproving of "Communist" Gustavo.
The young people's relationship is touching though never saccharine. Both are charming and intelligent. Rene Lavan and Mayte Vilan portray them to perfection, subtly convey sensitivity with none of the expected (especially from Latins) soap opera theatrics. Affectionate and friendly too is the rapport between Gustavo and his humorously cynical, politically disillusioned father.
I noticed that Cubans address their parents as "viejo" or "vieja" (old man, old woman) which makes the father and son banter all the nicer. At a party to celebrate the scholarship, Dr. Valdez unveils a cake, a rarity in this land of tremendous shortages. He describes humorously how the "Socialist" ingredients were obtained. Miguel Gutierrez, who plays him, is marvelous, a major screen and stage actor in Cuba which he left in 1991. He could teach others more than a thing or two in nuances, conveying a lot with a little, and more. . .
I will not detail the plot which is quite complex yet never confusing. The film achieves a difficult multiple blend of excellent character portrayals, a moving love story and the discussing, unveiling and criticizing Cuba, especially how its politics stifle aspirations and limit the lives of younger people.
The story involves several people : the defiant musician Bobby (in a devastating development which comes from a real event); Dr. Valdez who has no clients, even though "in Cuba everybody is crazy," and who starts a new career; Yolanda's family; the scholarship kept dangling before Gustavo with advice "to play the game"; an Italian investor woven in both as an individual and as emblematic of the "new colonialists" of Cuba. Even minor characters have impact.
You could swear that the whole thing was filmed in Havana. Yet, except for some establishing and other shots, the filming took place in Santo Domingo. I've seldom seen a more convincing job of substitution -- I can't even bring myself to call it faking. On top of some undoubtedly genuine street scenes of Havana, the recreation is exemplary. Black and white also adds authenticity to the documentary feeling, and melds seamlessly with what must be older black-and-white footage of the city's life. Within the film there is also footage of older home movies and of current videotapes made by the characters.
(The black-and-white print reminds me that some years ago, a university student taking an Introduction to Film course, loudly protested that he hated, and would refuse to watch, any black-and-white movies. I hope no one will miss this film for this reason!)
The editing is masterful in its blend and variety. Lavishy and intelligently incorporated music is well played, from good rock to nice old tunes. The subtitles are of high quality and the recording catches clearly the characteristic Cuban accents that tend to eat consonants.
A final thought on film and politics. Many classics, such as Eisenstein's, were partisan and could even lie blatantly --which "Bitter Sugar" does not -- yet these are still great films.