That major-league enigma lying ninety miles off the Florida coast doesn't often come into clear focus--not for North Americans. Aside from our occasional whiffs of its embargoed cigars and its stubborn, last-ditch socialism, Cuba remains terra incognita almost four decades after Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries shook the world. Our own government's relentless propaganda blitz doesn't help: It's reduced an entire country to caricature.
Strawberry & Chocolate, a buoyant comedy with deep political undertones, quickly produces the startling effect of a long-locked door suddenly thrown open to reveal an exotic room within. In fact, that very image dominates director Tomas Gutierrez Alea's fascinating revelation of the Cuban dilemma. A living room in a dingy Havana apartment building, circa 1979, is crammed with counterrevolutionary secrets. The occupant, a middle-aged, gay intellectual called Diego (Jorge Perugorra) has squirreled away dog-eared copies of Time magazine, quarts of Johnny Walker Red, forbidden books by pre-revolutionary novelists, and his own outrageous sensibility.
Alea, a leading Cuban filmmaker who's best known here for 1968's pioneering Memories of Underdevelopment, neither endorses nor condemns Diego's sexuality (a bold move in machismo-bound Cuba), but he takes obvious heart from the man's joyous subversions of Cuban political correctness--planning an outlaw exhibition of religious sculptures, sipping English tea instead of socialist coffee, reveling in his stack of Maria Callas records.
Alea fashions his own brand of dialectic, as well as a plea for sexual, political and artistic tolerance, from equal parts of domestic comedy, carnal desire and aesthetic bickering. The foil is a naive and curious young university student named David (Vladimir Cruz), who's vigorously straight, thoroughly indoctrinated with Castro orthodoxies and fresh from a rejection by his girlfriend, who's married another man. He's Diego's precise opposite, in fact, just as any heterosexual and fervent member of the Communist League would be. But, in time, David knows a new world of wonders when he sees one. The older man's first motivation is purely sexual, purely self-absorbed. He insinuates himself into a conversation at a sunny cafe, baits the boy with a rare book and lures him up to his apartment. Diego's lust is doomed to go unrequited--David isn't that naive--but as an unlikely friendship slowly builds between the two men, each gets a glimpse of his own liberation.
Time and again, Perugorra's swishing, fussy portrait of Diego edges toward burlesque, but he also gives the character such wit, irony and energy that he captivates the audience just as he does David. "We're giving humanity a lesson," he announces, half-jokingly. But it's true: In a society rigidly divided into sexual and ideological factions, a society not unlike our own, Diego and David come to demonstrate the power of diversity and the glories of learning.
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"How can a country move forward if it doesn't know John Donne?" Diego asks.
"John Donne," David muses. "Is he a friend of yours?" The kid who writes sloganeering socialist verses of his own charms us with the ignorance that's been imposed on him. He also manages to pin up photos of Fidel and Che Guevara in Diego's hideaway. "They're Cubans, too," he proudly tells his host, who must nod agreement and let the pictures stand.
Writer Senel Paz adapted his short story The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man for director Alea, and its title suggests the dynamics connecting the de facto tutor Diego, the student David and the film's pair of supporting characters--the building's suicidal "vigilance woman," Nancy (Mirta Ibarra), who has designs of her own on David; and his conventional college roommate, Miguel (Francisco Gatorno), who imagines the forces of counterrevolution lurking behind every lamppost.
Most of the two dozen or so Cuban films that have seeped into the United States since 1959 are laced with stock revolutionary fervor, if not outright propaganda. The characters here are didactic, all right, but they feel like real life, sailing along on a sea of troubles, quirks and fetching absurdities. When one of Diego's minor plots against the bureaucrats is found out, he's threatened with his first big trouble from the authorities. Strawberry & Chocolate then takes an alarming turn into sentiment and melodrama. But Alea (with a little help from co-director Juan Carlos Tabio, who briefly took the reins when the former got sick) just as quickly steers the film away from danger and back into bittersweet comedy.
But let's not take it too lightly. This may be the most authentic glimpse of Cuban life, and the push-pull of Cuban politics, we Americans are likely to get until aging Fidel Castro passes on. Even at the travelogue level, Alea's tour of Havana, from back alley to crumbling public square, is worth the price of admission. But there's so much more going on in this transparent gem of a movie that all thinking, curious Americans would do well to have a look. Only rarely has the deft dissection of a society and its traumas been so entertaining.