New Yorker Films // 1983 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Jesse Ataide (Retired) // March 15th, 2005
Wherever he goes, the memories of Black Shack Alley with always remain with him.
The opening credits of Sugar Cane Alley are deceptive. A tinny piano plays a bouncy ragtime tune over faded sepia photos, unwittingly romanticizing an era now long past. But there's nothing romantic or even nostalgic about Euzan Palcy's film, which revolves around a young boy's perilous ascent from the Caribbean sugar cane fields into the schoolroom where he is destined to succeed. Though it certainly has its moments of humor and charm, Sugar Cane Alley unflinchingly depicts the suffering of the people forced to bear the brunt of the weight of an oppressive colonial socio-economic system .
Set in Martinique during the 1930s, Sugar Cane Alley tells the story of Jose (Garry Cadenat), a young boy being raised by his hard-working grandmother (the magnificent Darling Legitimus). Forced to toil long hours in the sugar cane fields to find the means to survive, she resists allowing her grandson to join her in the back-breaking labor long after all his friends begin working to help support their families. She knows that Jose is an unusually intelligent boy, and dreams of a future where he will use his head, and not his hands, to earn his living.
It would have been easy for Palcy to focus on Jose's struggle to get an education, and his grandmother's quiet willpower that allows him to achieve that goal. But she takes a different approach, weaving this central story into a rich tapestry teeming with colorful characters and minor plotlines, demonstrating that this is one single story running parallel and interacting with numerous others. This sets up Sugar Cane Alley as a film depicting the struggles of society in general, and not an exhilarating story of a protagonist who beats the odds against crippling circumstances.
It's particularly admirable how steadfastly Palcy refuses to pander to the audience or play up the emotional elements of the film. Material dealing with oppressed people is emotionally-charged stuff, but she never exploits this. Tragic circumstances and painful deaths occur frequently throughout the film, yet they are never artificially dwelt upon. She treats each situation with dignity and respect, but never plays up certain elements that would cause an emotional response, essentially allowing the viewer to come to their own decision on the ramifications of each individual circumstance. This technique allows the combined weight of suffering to increase in resonance as the film progresses, leading up to the final devastating scene, where hope somehow emerges when all seems irrevocably lost. That is the greatest success of Sugar Cane Alley: Palcy and her actors manage to find a thread of hope hidden among the sordidness of the circumstances depicted.
Sugar Cane Alley is beautifully photographed in muted tones; an attempt to recapture the tattered elegance of ancient photographs while bringing their images to vivid life. The browns and deep purples have a haunting quality in the night scenes, as if casting a perpetual shadow of sadness over the entire proceedings, while in contrast, the blinding yellows of the day scenes highlight the dusty and stifling qualities of the Caribbean sun that beats relentlessly on the tired workers' backs. The color scheme of the film does much to enhance the power and resonance of the story, underlining both the positive and negative qualities of the way of life portrayed throughout the film.
New Yorker Films thankfully gives Sugar Cane Alley an anamorphic transfer that does the gorgeous cinematography and camerawork justice. Despite some minor image defects, the beauty of the film shines through. The audio is also quite clear, with some effective use of the surround sound in regards to natural background noises. English subtitles are provided, and the only "extras" to be found are several trailers for four other New Yorker releases.
Sugar Cane Alley is a film that could easily slip under a person's cinematic radar, but it is film not easy to shake off. Director Euzan Palcy's Cesar win for her directorial debut and Darling Legitimus's award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival were both richly deserved, and only further validate the worthiness of this haunting and heartbreaking film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated PG