Alea's Tropical, Topical 'Strawberry' Dips Into Castro Critique
Strawberry and Chocolate
directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea
at the Sony Janus Theatre
starring Jorge Perugorria,
Vladimir Cruz and Mirta lbarra
Cuban films are so rare these days that the appearance of one is laudable. The harsh economic situation in Cuba ensures that people are more preoccupied with getting enough to eat than with producing films. That any films are made at all is a testament to their creators' tenacity and determination.
"Strawberry and Chocolate," financed with Mexican and Spanish money, marks the return of Cuba's greatest director, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, who 35 years ago produced the masterpiece "Memories of Underdevelopment."
As the film begins, David (Vladimir Cruz), a young student of political science and committed member of the ruling Communist Party, wanders dispiritedly around Havana because his girl-friend has chosen to marry another man. At one of the city's famous ice cream parlors, David meets Diego (Jorge Perugorria), a thirty-something homosexual who tries to pick him up. David rebuffs Diego's advances, but eventually agrees to accompany the older man to his apartment because Diego has promised to give him some hard-to-get books which are forbidden under Cuban censorship laws.
Diego's apartment seems like a different world, crammed with books, records, sculptures, religious artifacts and pictures of silver screen goddesses. David is at once attracted to and repelled by what he sees. The seduction works on two levels; there is the provocative temptation of forbidden knowledge contained in the books and Diego's clumsy attempts to bed David. The awkward situation worsens and David leaves in disgust.
When David returns to his dorm at the university, he tells his roommate Miguel (Francisco Gatorno) that he met a homosexual at an ice cream parlor. "How do you know he was a homosexual?" asks Miguel. David replies, "They had chocolate, but he ordered straw-berry." Miguel tells David that Diego is a subversive and that it is David's patriotic duty to return to Diego and attempt to extract information from him. And so begins the friendship between David and Diego.
At first glance, "Strawberry and Chocolate" seems like a Cuban version of the Manuel Puig/Hector Babenco "Kiss of the Spider Woman." There is the flamboyant gay man, the uptight, straight Marxist and lots of political oppression. Straw-berry and Chocolate" also contains the maudlin elements of what in hack reviewer parlance is called a "feel-good movie." However, it is the critique of Cuban society as it stands and the glimpse into a decaying Havana which make Gutierrez Alea's film so pointed and topical. "Strawberry and Chocolate" makes a plea for tolerance, a virtue not much in evidence in Castro's Cuba, which arrested homosexuals and interned them in labor and rehabilitation camps.
The film is not without problems. One wishes Diego and the other gay characters weren't such stereotypes. In addition to sporting the traditional lisp, limp wrists and swishy hips, Diego listens to Maria Callas, reads Cavafy and Walt Whitman and drinks Indian tea from Sevres cups. It seems as if the gay men burst into tears at regular intervals, and Gutierrez Alea can't resist the trap of the gay-man-as-tragic-queen-in-love-with-a-straight-ma n cliche. Frankly, it is difficult to see why Diego is so interested in David, who is terribly callous and in the final analysis, rather boring. However, Jorge Perugorria's sensitive portrayal saves Diego from being a mere caricature, and Perugorria certainly makes a much better gay man than William Hurt.
Mirta Ibarra as Diego's neighbor Nancy, a feisty and sensual woman "of a certain age" with whom David has an affair, turns in the film's other great performance. Ibarra, whose character is reminiscent of Maria Rojo in "Danzon," is at once funny, carnal and moving.
The most interesting love affair in the movie may be the one between Gutierrez Alea and Havana. "Strawberry and Chocolate" is a valentine to the director's city, which like Nancy, appears as a beautiful woman battered by time and the vicissitudes of a hard life.
"Strawberry and Chocolate" is not a masterpiece. Gutierrez Alea is not quite in form, although this is in part due to a lack of resources and not resourcefulness. There are problems with aspects of the characterization, and the film's political and sentimental message can be a little broad sometimes. How ever, the film is as simple and as good as chocolate ice cream. Funny, insightful and a little irreverent, "Strawberry and Chocolate" remains a treat.
"Strawberry and Chocolate" bodes well for the future of the Cuban film industry. Diego says that in spite of all the troubles Cuba has suffered and despite the fact many Cuban artists have been persecuted or exiled, art, which he considers an essential part of the Cuban soul, has man aged to survive and even to thrive. Gutierrez Alea certainly demonstrates the tenacity of the Cuban artist, and if the state of Cuba's economy ever improves, he will reign again in the Cuban film industry.