Cuban film producer Carlos Vives died last week in Havana at age 71. (EFE )
Since Cuban film producer Carlos Vives died in Havana last week at 71, tributes have floated in from newspapers and websites across the Spanish-speaking world. Except, of course, in the United States, where because of Cold War-era political rationales Cuban culture remains largely a taboo topic.
By any measure, Vives was a cinematic mogul, with more than 130 works to his credit, including about 40 feature films. More significantly, he backed a number of movies that delved deep into the intricacies of Cuban society and the complex daily lives of ordinary people, while quietly challenging the island nation's communist orthodoxies.
One of these was the 1993 "Fresa y chocolate" (Strawberry and Chocolate), which was distributed in the United States by Miramax and may be Vives' best-known film outside of his homeland (he served as an executive producer).
Set in Havana in 1979, the movie explores the relationship between David, a university student, and Diego, a gay artist who is pushing back against the Castro government's policies toward gays and lesbians as well as its rigid, state-sanctioned notions of Cuban culture. Rising above political platitudes, "Fresa y chocolate" was "not a movie about the seduction of a body, but about the seduction of a mind," as Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote. "It is more interested in politics than sex -- unless you count sexual politics, since to be homosexual in Cuba is to make an anti-authoritarian statement whether you intend it or not."
According to a number of reports, Vives began his film career with the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos, which was created in 1959 shortly after the start of the Cuban revolution. By the 1970s he was directing ICAIC's production studios. Among the other films he was associated with were director Humberto Solas' "Lucia" (1968), which dramatized the lives of three Cuban women, each named Lucia, during three pivotal epochs: the war of independence from Spain in the 1890s, the 1930s, and the 1960s; and "Suite Habana" (2003), a documentary tone poem that depicts a day in the life of 10 ordinary Havana dwellers using only imagery and music.
According to the Madrid newspaper El Pais, Vives also was at the forefront of arranging co-productions between Cuba and Spain, the rest of Europe and Latin America, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s left the Cuban economy in shambles. And, also according to El Pais, when the ICAIC lost its monopoly over Cuban film production in the last decade and a new generation of young filmmakers began financing their own movies, Vives supported the transition.
It was a suitable gesture for a filmmaker who appeared to put art above political propaganda or profit.
Natalie Portman's indie Western faces series of troubles
With 'The Croods' in top spot, 'Olympus' will fall to No. 2
Shane Salerno's J.D. Salinger documentary to hit theaters Sept. 6
Follow me on Twitter: @RJohnsonLAT
PHOTOS AND MORE
COACHELLA: Complete 2013 lineup
THE ENVELOPE: Awards Insider
PHOTOS: Grammy top winners