I wasn't even going to review Leon Ichaso's cliche-ridden anti-Castro diatribe Bitter Sugar. Ichaso's Cuban Romeo and Juliet seemed neither good enough to merit my praise nor bad enough to invoke my wrath; the film drifts like a sunstruck balsero in a sea of mediocrity. But then, on September 25, the Miami Herald ran a plea from Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Liz Balmaseda. "Bitter Sugar: The world needs to see this film" trumpeted the headline. Balmaseda quotes Ichaso: "Fidel Castro wrote the script, not me." To which the columnist adds, "Somehow, I think if that were true, Ichaso's film would be the toast of Cannes." The Cuban-born Balmaseda goes on to claim that prestigious film festivals around the world -- most notably and egregiously the recent New York Film Festival -- have snubbed Bitter Sugar because of its politics.
"In recent years, that festival seemed particularly hostile to films critical of the Cuban revolution," she writes.
I cannot vouch for the New York Film Festival, but Balmaseda's assertion that festival after festival rejected the film because of its political agenda strikes me as quite a reach. I saw Bitter Sugar last February during the Miami Film Festival; the ovation accorded it by that uniformly anti-Castro audience notwithstanding, I thought the picture lame, simple-minded, and self-important. Granted, the film takes a few well-deserved shots at the bearded devil and his repressive regime. But aside from the anti-Fidel sentiment (with which I happen to agree), I found little to recommend the film but some pretty black-and-white photography clandestinely shot on the island.
Ichaso's output has steadily declined in quality since his 1979 feature film debut, the superb El Super, a bittersweet comedy of assimilation detailing the exploits of a Cuban refugee in Manhattan struggling to overcome homesickness and make a new life for himself as an apartment building superintendent. With that film the director displayed a light, almost wistful comedic touch and a vibrant visual sense. The story was slight and familiar, but the acting was so enchanting and the humor so wry that it didn't matter. The filmmaker's slide began with his next picture, 1985's Crossover Dreams, which marked the motion picture debut of Panamanian recording star Ruben Blades portraying a salsa musician who hits the big time and becomes an egomaniacal backstabber. Dreams overcame the hackneyed story line with stunning music and Blades's seamless performance, but Ichaso's uninspired writing nearly dragged down the whole enterprise. (And I recall Blades's outspoken support for leftist causes didn't exactly endear him -- or Ichaso's film -- to Miami's Cuban exile community.)
The pace of Ichaso's descent accelerated with 1991's insipid Wesley Snipes vehicle Sugar Hill, a boneheaded, overwrought, and utterly derivative tale of two heroin-dealing brothers losing control of their hard-won Harlem crime empire. Snipes was good and his supporting cast (which included Michael Wright, Theresa Randle, and The Mod Squad's Clarence Williams III) was even better. Ichaso managed to work in one or two cute camera angles, but, to quote VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, the film's "formulaic plot will leave viewers asking themselves if they haven't seen it before and why it was they saw it then."
Which pretty much sums up my criticism of the transparently manipulative Bitter Sugar. Ichaso's passion -- the film wears its anti-Castro message on its sleeve -- blinds him to the threadbare triteness of his star-crossed lovers scenario. And this time the acting doesn't bail him out; the performances make telenovelas look nuanced by comparison. Ichaso's protagonist is a by-the-book, swallow-the-party-line kind of guy who, despite all the contrary evidence confronting him, steadfastly maintains his loyalty to the revolution. He falls hard for a young lovely whose commie-hating mother disapproves of her daughter's blossoming romance with a naive Castro apologist. Can you see where this is headed yet?
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Since the girl and her mother cannot survive on what the government allots them, the sweet young thing encourages the affections of an older foreign man who bestows material goodies upon her in the best sleazy sugar-daddy tradition. I don't know why Ichaso doesn't just abandon any pretense of subtlety and superimpose the words Communism makes her a whore! (Interesting -- a less generous reviewer might say confusing -- how Ichaso's condemnation of the revolution also makes capitalism, as personified by the ugly, insensitive tourists and rapacious foreign investors, look vile and corrupting.) The whole predictable mess grinds inexorably to a tragic end. The only unexpected curve the director throws is the appearance of the protagonist's brother, a rebellious teen who can't stay out of trouble and ultimately expresses his hopelessness by injecting HIV-tainted blood directly into his veins.
Maybe Leon Ichaso should just steer clear of movies with the word sugar in the title. Frankly, I think the exile cause would be better served if this guy were making films for the other side. Contrary to what Balmaseda believes, the world doesn't need to see this Romeo and Juliet ripoff just because of its heavy-handed anti-Fidel subtext. Nor does the film's rejection by a handful of film festivals point to a worldwide conspiracy of Castro apologists. Sorry, Liz. Bitter Sugar is just a corny two-bit flick; its amateurish plotting, melodramatic situations, stereotypical characters, and obvious political bias mark it as a propagandistic loser for anyone who cares to view the film without single-issue blinders.
-- Todd Anthony
Written by Leon Ichaso and Orestes Mataceana; directed by Leon Ichaso; with Ren Lavan, Mayte Vilan, and Larry Villanueva.