A Cuban family is torn apart by socialist lies and repression. Story inspired by actual events. [ Bitter Sugar credits: Dir: Leon Ichaso/ Rene Lavan, Mayte Vilan, Miguel Gutierrez/ 102 min/ Romance, Drama, Foreign Language/ Cuba, USA/ In Spanish with English subtitles/ Escape from Socialism, Anti-Socialism]
At this time of worldwide retreat from socialism, it’s easy to forget that a number of unreformed Marxist countries still remain. Director (and cowriter) Leon Ichaso offers this reminder in the form of a dramatic portrait of today’s Cuba.
Bitter Sugar revolves around the life of a committed young socialist, a shining example of Cuba’s “new man.” He has just won an engineering scholarship and seems on the threshold of a promising future. But as events unfold, he begins to see that the deprivation, corruption, and oppression he had heretofore willingly overlooked is destroying his loved ones. His girlfriend, an antisocialist who hates her impoverished, boring life, secretly becomes a mistress to a rich foreigner in hope that he will take her out of the country. His father, a cynical survivor who has never forgiven himself for keeping his family in Cuba, gives up his practice as a psychologist to work in a bar where he can make more money in tips from tourists. His brother, a rock musician who lives for his music, injects himself with AIDS-tainted blood in an exasperated protest against the destruction of his band by the police.
These unhappy stories draw upon the real life experiences of actual Cubans. Much of what this film faults socialism for doing to Cuba is referred to here as the “colonialization” of the country, that is, creating a financial inequality between locals and foreign visitors. In particular, foreigners not only get the best of everything but also wield power beyond their money, while even the most educated Cuban is reduced to providing to them menial and in some cases sexual services. At the same time, Cubans are restricted from entering the “better places”—hotels, shops, nightclubs etc.—which have been reserved by the government for more moneyed foreign tourists. The result is that Cubans sometimes feel like second-class citizens in their own country, an irony given that their government prides itself on its anticolonialist fervor.
Another irony here is the contrast between the government’s revolutionary rhetoric and the way it treats actual revolutionaries, i.e., those seeking radical change.
Bitter Sugar is an interesting and revealing window into today’s Cuba. The cinematography in several scenes is artful, and Rene Lavan (of One Life to Live) and Mayte Vilan, in the leading roles, make a remarkably handsome young couple. Needless to say, this is a film that speaks to the Cuban American experience, and it has received an enthusiastic response from that community. As Miguel Perez, a Cuban American reviewer wrote: “We Cuban Americans usually end up resigning ourselves to the same saying: El comunismo hay que vivirlo. ‘You have to live under communism’ to truly understand how it feels. If only there was a way, we exiles often ask ourselves, to make our non-Cuban friends experience the degrading repression, hunger, and other difficulties of life in Cuba. [But now there is a film] that answers those questions and fulfills that mission.” Also listed as Azucar Amarga.