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MOVIE REVIEW : Ice Cream, Sexuality and Politics in Cuba

January 27, 1995|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a sunny day in 1979 a young gay man, Diego, zeros in on David, a university student, sitting alone in a Havana outdoor cafe, eating chocolate ice cream. Diego, who orders strawberry, flirts shamelessly, even managing to get the increasingly uneasy David, a political science major, to go to his apartment.

Despite all his brazen determination and shameless ploys, Diego succeeds only in driving David away, but this is just the beginning of "Strawberry and Chocolate," Tomas Gutierrez Alea's triumphant seriocomic tale of sex and politics, a candid and critical view of Cuban society with implications timeless and universal. On another level, the film, which is Cuba's official Oscar entry, is a warm, funny and wise heart-tugger with the wide appeal of "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" or even "La Cage aux Folles."

Alea, Cuba's major veteran director, is best known for his landmark "Memories of Underdevelopment" (1968), in which an upper-middle-class man in his 30s, on the eve of his departure in flight of Castro's triumph, decides to stay and cast his lot with the new order. But Alea's view has evolved revealingly in the decades since and the irresistible "Strawberry and Chocolate" is an uncommonly shrewd blend of seriousness and schmaltz.

In all likelihood Vladimir Cruz's David and Jorge Perugorria's Diego would never have had further contact had David not mentioned the incident to his roommate Miguel (Francisco Gatorno). David remarks that Diego, a Ministry of Culture employee, is helping his sculptor friend German (Joel Angelino), also gay, plan an exhibition of his work in collaboration with a foreign embassy. Miguel, a stereotypical macho Latino homophobe, smells subversive activity instantly and insists that David spend enough time with Diego to get him and German into trouble.

German's works, basically outsized replicas of plaster statues found in any Catholic religious goods store, suggest a protest of religious persecution in Castro's Cuba--but this may be reading too much into them; the main point is that Diego and German are gay in a pre-Mariel boat lift Cuba when gay and revolutionary were widely and firmly believed to be contradictory terms.

When David knocks at Diego's door, both men are apologetic about their previous behavior. Very soon David discovers Diego is not some sort of political and sexual decadent but, as he reports subsequently to a disbelieving Miguel, "a man of more courage and principles than you could imagine."

*

At the heart of "Strawberry and Chocolate" is the friendship that develops between a gay man and a straight man, which is almost never depicted on the screen and surely never with such depth and insight. Alea and writer Senel Paz, working from Paz's short story "The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man," have really got it right.

(Because of Alea's ongoing struggle with lung cancer, he has a co-director, Juan Carlos Tabio, who shot some scenes while Alea was hospitalized. Alea is back at work on a new film, "Guantanamera.")

A proud member of the Communist League, David discovers his world opening up, for Diego is a witty, challenging, formidably well-read and cultured intellectual, a blunt but constructive critic of David's writing. Meanwhile, Diego quietly downplays the truth that he has fallen in love with his new friend. Thankfully, he's no martyr and is simply too gutsy and tough not to be able to handle his emotions for the sake of a relationship that has real meaning for him. On the other hand, it has clearly never occurred to David that a gay man could possess strength of character or even that gays have to be resilient and must have the capacity to create their own universes simply if they are to survive in a largely hostile world.

Perugorria and Cruz are wonderful actors and have been intriguingly cast. Although unapologetically effeminate and sometimes flamboyant, Diego is handsome, hairy-chested and husky, whereas the straight David is slight and doe-eyed, almost delicate. Rounding out a key trio of terrific portrayals is that of Mirta Ibarra as Nancy, David's neighbor, an immensely likable and vital but highly vulnerable former prostitute in her 40s.

As graceful as the antique wrought-iron railings glimpsed throughout, "Strawberry and Chocolate" looks gorgeous but evokes a sense of sadness, for it is set in the heart of old Havana with its avenues of magnificent 19th-Century buildings threatening to crumble into dust. Diego's charming, artifact-cluttered apartment, the film's main setting, is composed of a couple of small rooms in a large structure of decayed grandeur.

The constant paranoia, the homophobia that signifies a much wider oppression and the lack of freedom of expression that was true of Cuba in 1979 may have diminished, even dramatically in some instances. However, the country is still far from a paradise for gays, and the Havana that we see on the screen is inescapably--and significantly--the seedy, impoverished city of today.

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