Sugar Fields

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Courtesy of Unicornio Films
Spectacle without substance.

The Dominican Republic’s foreign-language Oscar submission focuses on the travails of two families under the brutal Trujillo regime of the 1940s.

A visually ravishing, technically accomplished and dramatically inert take on the effects of political tyranny on the lives of ordinary folk, Sugar Fields is unfortunately built around a script that kicks off with a strong 45 minutes, but which then declines into general confusion. Its attempt to deal with the human consequences of the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in 1940s in the remote coastal areas of Santo Domingo and Haiti is ambitious and well-intentioned, but its wish to cram in just too much and its constant recourse to unnecessary flashback mean that over the final reels, all nuance is gone, leaving Sugar Fields with the sickly-sweet taste of cinematic cliche in a piece which would have benefited from some severe pruning.

Given the political circumstances — the script references a couple of the human rights horrors committed by the dictator Trujillo — Samuel Mendoza (Dominican actor/singer Hector Anibal) lives a happy-ish life with his pregnant wife Elena (Ariana Lebron) and child. Samuel’s essential goodness is repeatedly stressed via his ability to get on with kids, but he gets on less well with a gang of Trujillo’s soldiers. In a barroom brawl, Samuel kills one of them, in an episode which, to no clear narrative benefit, is elided over but shown later.

Samuel is obliged to flee to the island of Saona, where he becomes a fisherman and befriends a young mute girl. “if I have to risk my life to defend what’s right, I’ll do it,” he muses, and some viewers might wonder in that case why he waits a whole year to return to his pregnant wife and child, who aren’t even sure he’s still alive. Psychologically, too much of Sugar Fields operates at this telenovela-ish level, with psychological truth regularly sacrificed to hollow dramatic effect.

Meanwhile, a separate story involves Haitian Sasa (Julietta Rodriguez), who along with her husband leaves Haiti on a troubled journey to Santo Domingo in search of work in the cane fields. Though it’s all set 70 years ago, Sasa’s story has a certain contemporary relevance, since Haitian immigration remains a thorny issue in the islands, but despite all the time spent on it, it adds little to the film. Sasa’s father happens to be a voodoo sorcerer who appears just once during Sasa’s goodbye scene, and perhaps the film would have done well to avoid this particular Haitian cliche.

The story is told via multiple flashbacks, some of which make sense, others less so. After about 45 minutes, the script seems to give up the narrative ghost and becomes a sequence of set-pieces, unconnected by any emotional thread in a story which should have been emotionally wrenching.

But while the storyline is confused and predictable, the characters are too neatly divided into good and bad and Samuel lacks charm and charisma, there’s no doubting Sugar Field‘s visual power, courtesy of high-profile DP Claudio Chea, which is probably what earned the film its foreign-language Oscar submission. Aerial scenes over the terrifyingly named Massacre River, which runs along the Haiti-Santo Domingo border, are spectacular, as is a musical sequence later on, a tracking shot upriver accompanied by a bland but pleasant song.

Production company: Unicornio Films
Cast: Hector Anibal, Ariana Lebron, Julietta Rodriguez, James Saintil
Director-screenwriter-editor-executive producer: Fernando Baez Mella, based on a story by Juan Bosch
Director of photography: Claudio Chea
Production designer: Alberto Samboy
Costume designer: Alicia Dalmau Sound
Composer: Pedro Eustache
Sales: Unicornio Films

Not rated, 110 minutes

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