STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE (FRESA Y CHOCOLATE) (Cuba,1994) *** 1/2.. Directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea. Co-director, Juan Carlos Tabio. Written by Senel Paz, based on his short story "The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man." Cinematography, Mario Garcia Joya. Sound design, Germinal Hernandez. Production design, Fernando O'Reylly. Costumes, Miriam Dueba. Editing, Miriam Talavera, Osvaldo Donatien. Music, Jose Maria Vitier. Cast: Jorge Perugorria, Vladimir Cruz, Mirta Ibarra, Franciso Gatorno, Jorge Angelino, Marilyn Solaya. A Miramax release. In Spanish with subtitles. 110 minutes. Not rated. (Unobjectionable nudity)
Lenin's declaration that "The cinema is for us the most important of the arts" was heeded by all the regimes within the Soviet sphere after World War II. They supported (and controlled) movie-making, with mixed results that ranged from humdrum dullness to masterpieces, according to talent, political developments, the movies' subjects, the film-makers' ability to circumvent censorship and still send messages, and many other factors.
After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the creation of a Film Institute (ICAIC) saw, from the mid-60s on, the flourishing of Cuban cinema -- primarily fiction and documentaries about Cuban history and problems. The features especially, in spite of their modest numbers, made big splashes on the international movie scene.
Tomas Gutierrez Alea, co-founder of ICAIC, rapidly became the premier Cuban filmmaker. Among his features,"Memories of Underdevelopment" (1968) was about an uneasy intellectual who would not commit to the Revolution.
Something along those lines resurfaces in "Strawberry and Chocolate." The film could be summed up as: "Gay, independent intellectual and straight conformist become friends," but doing this would deny its complexities. It is neither a high-concept movie nor a buddy flick.
In 1979 Havana, gay Diego (Jorge Perugorria), a photographer and all-around esthete, picks up somewhat younger University student David (Vladimir Cruz) at an ice-cream cafe where, symbolically, the two men choose different flavors. Diego with much humorous persistence, persuades the student to follow him to his apartment and look at photographs that include David.
Diego's cramped place is overflowing with books, records, paintings and sculptures. Out of sync with revolutionary political correctness, Diego is only committed to art and culture.
Resolutely heterosexual David (still a virgin), is a true believer in the regime and calls himself a dialectic materialist. He is, for good reason, most suspicious of Diego who comes on with blatancy and flamboyance. But these mannerisms gradually get toned down as he dazzles his reluctant guest with, the forbidden fruit of non-conformist thinking and the rare fruit of hard-to-find works by Cuban and foreign authors, arias by Maria Callas and other such attractions.
In penurious Cuba, strapped for the luxuries of the senses, Diego has a bottle of real Scotch. He serves tea to David. "Look, Indian tea in French porcelain!" With those hedonistic goodies come references to famous gays "Wilde, Lorca, Gide, Achilles and Patroclus ... Hemingway perhaps" along with the advice that "the best thing is not to be amazed by anything but to try all the cups."
Sexual enticements fall on David's deaf ears --but not on a closed mind. He continues seeing Diego so as to monitor him as a "counterrevolutionary." As for Diego, he rapidly realizes the futility of any sexual rapport and settles for friendship, though --and that's an important point -- not as a second-best choice.
He becomes a kind of irresistibly charming Pygmalion for David whose heart is in literature although he studies Political Science. It is inevitable and natural that, whatever their original motives, the two will become fast friends.
The story gets complicated by Diego's desire to mount an unorthodox art show -- quite benign it seems to me, as we only see the religious wood statues of a sculptor friend. When the authorities reject the project, Diego's furious protest letters do not exactly endear him to the regime.
The plot also gets nicely, warmly complicated by Nancy (Mirta Ibarra), Diego's friend and neighbor, a pretty, fortyish, likable occasional hooker and black marketeer. In their building she is the "vigilancia" which I take to mean the person who keeps an eye on the conduct and politics of the tenants. This is a wonderfully absurd twist since Nancy has weird psychological problems and really doesn't give a hoot for politics.
The movie proceeds at an well-timed pace and with a good eye for the shabbiness and rundown old glories of Havana, which Diego deplores. Be on the lookout for the shots of a demolished building whose ruined, faded walls have the beauty of an abstract painting. My only objections are the curious lack of photos by photographer Diego and the mystery of the means that get him so many "luxuries."
The performance of handsome Perugorri, in his prize-winning first film role, is remarkable for its appeal, shadings, expressed or suggested thoughts and feelings. Mirta Ibarra too makes a colorful, highly simpatico character.
"S & C" reaches no conclusions, yet its people and dialectics are a regular source of interest, wit, comedy and lightly handled arguments. Note too the unusually good use of "diegetic" music, sounds that issue from within the film itself as opposed to background movie scores. Works of Cuban composers such as Ignacio Cervantes, Jose Urfe or Ernesto Lecuona are perfectly woven in, with comments by Diego, as part and parcel of the story.
Discrimination against gays in Cuba has been criticized before, notably by the late, great cinematographer Nestor Almendros. To what extent the film is manipulative, how much its criticism of the State and its plea for tolerance of minorities are "safe," has been debated by critics and Cuban exiles. I will not venture on this minefield except to say that the movie, like its protagonists, is a delight and that in his quest for freedom, Diego is the truest revolutionary of them all.