An inventive political soap opera about women at a tuna packing plant in Puerto Rico, “Bitter Sweat” nimbly interweaves a murder mystery with femme issues at home and at work. Helmer/co-scripter/actress Sonia Valentin inverts the usual meller axis by making the workplace the central focus. Oddly skewed mix of genres probably won’t add up to broad-based B.O. appeal, but pic could readily win over femme and Hispanic cable auds.
Pic opens with a shot of the padlocked gates of Ernie Tuna: Unbeknownst to the predominantly women workers, the facility is about to close. As pink slips, rumors and defiance fester inside, protesters gather outside.
When a plant manager is found dead in his office bathroom, the list of suspects includes his battered wife, his tuna-packing mistress, and the mistress’ jealous wannabe boyfriend, the factory janitor. Meanwhile each worker is juggling her own domestic drama.
Although “Sweat” may be soap-operatic in content, stylistically it exhibits the daring abstraction usually associated with high-toned music videos and European arthouse films. For example, action is frozen or repeated as the same fish is gutted over and over; television footage of demonstrations outside punctuate lunchroom powwows inside.
Most of first-time director/writer/actress Valentin’s visual conceits pack a punch, providing a stark counterpoint to the emotionally overcharged action. A few, however, come up short: The jealous janitor is given to hallucinatory p.o.v. shots of spinning rooms and blurry lights for no discernible reason.
Valentin delights in reversing genre and gender expectations in semi-political ways. After a sequence with the manager’s wife stalking the mistress builds to the brink of a hammer-wielding “slasher film” climax, pic suddenly cuts to the mistress recounting the incident’s surprisingly bloodless denouement to her enthralled coworkers in the locker room, reinforcing the primacy of the factory as “home” to all stories.
Pic’s most audacious sequence is a long shot moving from room to room — with dark bands or walls separating them — in the various women’s homes. Each room is unnaturally compressed into a narrow rectangle with the woman’s aspirations related through dialogue or captions.
Like many recent European pics, “Sweat” examines the workplace as an economic and political proving-ground. Pic contrasts interestingly with the one-woman revolt of “Real Women Have Curves,” a blend of soap opera and labor agitprop from another, very different Hispano/American community. “Curves” ultimately celebrates the heroine’s individual choice. “Sweat” closes with its heroines acting collectively.
Thesping and tech credits are topnotch. P.J. Lopez’s lensing moves effortlessly from abstraction to realism.