BITTER SWEAT (Sonia Valentín, 2003)

From Puerto Rico, Sudor Amargo (Bitter Sweat), by Sonia Valentín, is about the responses of women workers to the imminent closing, due to high operational costs, of the fish-cleaning factory at which they work. The U.S. owner is shipping the factory down to South America, where, among other benefits to him, wages are lower. The enrobing irony, of course, is that the factory’s placement in Puerto Rico rather than in the States was based on similar calculations.
     Valentín’s film has been widely compared to Erin Brockovich. How odd. That shallow film mines the bankrupt vein of how much one person (with a plunging neckline) can improve the world. Sudor Amargo is all about group protest and worker solidarity—what people can accomplish socially and politically by working together.
     The scenes of the women at work, and at cleaning themselves after work, reek of fish odor and the sheer unpleasantness of what they do to eke out a living.
     But what is most extraordinary about this positive, moving film is its focus on the humanity of these various and very different workers, each with her own life. The film careens from pseudo-documentary to soap opera to wicked farce to whodunit, all in an effort to flesh out the women’s lives at, about and away from work. Moreover, Valentín, an agile, expressive artist, marshals jump cuts, freeze frames, daydreams, nightmares and anything else she can think of to get the job done, punctuating her eclectic, here hilarious, there piercingly touching narrative with scenes of demonstrating workers outside the factory and shots of the factory’s fence being locked forever. The narrative’s rendezvous with dire destiny is subverted by a finale that will have you cheering and wiping away tears—one that’s perfectly logical, I might add, and in keeping with the film’s political stance.
     I could have done without certain shots—this woman stepping on glass, that woman puking, etc. But, overall, this film delightfully twists and turns.

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