(Air Date: Week Of 03/20/97)
"Bitter Sugar", a film about current-day life in Cuba, transforms the black and white of newsprint into black and white images with a sharp, bittersweet, and human interest that makes what we've read about come alive.
The story has the romantic trappings of Romeo and Juliet, but the emphasis is on the grim economic situation that makes life in Cuba a hard grind for both revolutionary diehards, and cynics, forcing every one to cowtow to foreign investors. Gustavo Valdez is reality the young idealist, a graduate of the Lenin School, whose family supported Cuba's revolution. Still believing in Castro's vision, he wins a scholarship that will supposedly allow him to go to Prague to study aeronautical engineering.
Yolanda is a streetwise, happy-go-lucky girl whose dream is to escape to Miami. She and Gustavo meet and start falling in love on the fateful evening when his rebellious brother, Bobby, performs at a rave party with his heavy metal band. After the police break in and confiscate the band's equipment, Bobby and his fellow musicians are arrested for protesting. They're beaten and treated as criminals, and in one of the strongest scenes of the film, Bobby does what many Cuban rockeros have done in real life as the strongest possible expression of hopelessness -- on camera, he injects himself with blood infected by the AID's virus.
Gustavo's father Tomas, a psychiatrist, was once a staunch supporter of the revolution, refusing to leave Cuba when his friends were fleeing. Now he's disllusioned by the economic ruin, and by the death of his wife. In a poignant scene, we see him crying while watching home movies of happy days with his family. Unable to earn a living as a shrink, he takes a degrading job as a piano player in a hotel lounge to earn tips in American dollars.
All of this sounds depressing, but the spirit and resourcefulness of these characters living through such difficult times, not to mention the energetic music and streetlife of the young Cubans, are an inspiring counterpoint to the bleakness. And the bittersweet love story at the center of "Bitter Sugar" makes Cuba come alive in universally human way.
Copyright 1997 Mary Weems
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