The irony of “Strawberry and Chocolate,” Cuba’s first Oscar-nominated foreign language entry, is that such a sensitive look at homosexuality could come from such a macho, gay-bashing culture.
It makes you wonder about the posture of those who would lord the United States, which boasts more than its share of gay-bashing pockets, over Castro’s Cuba.
This is not to say that the Cuba of today, or even that of the movie’s 1979 setting, is a model of free expression. That’s exactly the movie’s point. But he or she who is without sin… and so on. You know the drill.
What’s all the more surprising about “Strawberry and Chocolate” is that it is an officially sanctioned movie. And such animals seldom dare bite the hand that unleashes them.
Yet from the first moment that David (Vladimir Cruz), the young student of the revolution, sits down and begins eating his chocolate ice cream, this film begins to thumb its nose at the authorities. Because then we are introduced to Diego (Jorge Perugorria), who delights not only in the taste of strawberry but in the presence of David as well.
The exact plot of “Strawberry and Chocolate,” which is directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio from a script by Senel Paz, is no more complex than the flavors used to symbolize gender preference (or, to be more specific, gender blurring). Diego wants to seduce David, but fails, and ends up educating him about the world outside of Marx. David, who initially hangs out with Diego only to spy on him for the authorities, ends up learning about tolerance.
There are a few subplots, of course. David is recovering from a failed love affair with Vivian (Marilyn Solaya), and Diego helps him do so by introducing the young comrade to his “wounded sparrow” of a neighbor, the fortysomething Nancy (Mirta Ibarra). Most of these, however, just get in the way.
In addition, the notion that David’s stalwart dedication to the revolution is fueled by his sexual frustration is oversimplified.
But, then, “Strawberry and Chocolate” is not a perfect film. As an actor, Cruz is little more than good looking and Ibarra gives new meaning to the term “flighty.” Only Perugorria rises above the material, giving a performance that is both histrionic and modulated; the film comes alive whenever he is on screen.
Whatever its faults, though, “Strawberry and Chocolate” is charming when it needs to be. And the dilemma that artistic Diego ultimately faces, to be shipped to the United States as a political undesirable or stay in a country that continues to oppress those who don’t fit a common mold, underscores the power of Perugorria’s performance.
“Who says I’m not a patriot?” he asks, offense twisting his features, when David dares to question his patriotism.
Then Diego, the outcast of society, explains why he loves his native Cuba every bit as much as any strutting revolutionary.
And to think that Fidel’s boys approved.
Talk about irony.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Strawberry and Chocolate” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio, starring Valdimir Cruz, Jorge Perugorria, Mirta Ibarra and Marilyn Solaya Running time: 1:43 Rated: R (In Spanish with English subtitles)