Directors: Tomas Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio
Havana, 1979. David, a young student takes Vivian, his girlfriend, to a shabby hotel with the intention of making love. Disgusted with where he has brought her, under the initial pretence of going to the cinema, she refuses. The following scene is at Vivian’s wedding to another man, where David is a crestfallen spectator. He visits a bar, where he catches the eye of Diego, an overtly gay student, who attempts to pick David up by inviting him back to his apartment where he has photographs of David performing in a university play. Diego deliberately spills coffee on David to force him to remove his shirt then David hastily leaves.
Miguel, David’s room-mate, suggests that David return to Diego’s apartment and befriend him in order to keep an eye on Diego’s potentially subversive activities, such as the art exhibition he is planning to put on. David and Diego debate their respective positions as staunch Communist and persecuted homosexual alike but form a genuine friendship. Diego’s neighbour Nancy, a suicidal former prostitute falls in love with David, who returns her feelings. Miguel arrives at Diego’s apartment, informing Diego that he intends to see that David is expelled from university for consorting with Nancy and asks Diego to a sign a document to assist him. Diego refuses. A defeated Diego informs David that he intends to leave Cuba and that he loves him. They embrace.
Tomas Gutiérrez Alea has been the most potent chronicler of post-revolutionary events in Cuba, documenting the experience of the Castro regime upon ordinary Cubans in such films as ‘Death of a Bureaucrat’ (1966), a satire upon Communist red-tape and ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ (1968), which reflected on the social changes from revolution until the late 1960s. Although his subsequent films didn’t acquire quite the same attention as these two previous films, the final phase of his film making career was spent mentoring young and aspiring Cuban directors. The most widely known example is ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’, a collaboration with Juan Carlos Tabio, which came about due to the Alea’s ill-health. The film has been controversial because it’s the film Cuban film that deals directly, and with some honesty, about the gay experience under Castro. It was also the first film to receive significant exposure in the USA, marketed and distributed by Miramax, and it was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (it lost out to the Russian film ‘Burnt By The Sun’).
The entire set-up of ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ sounds like it could very easily descend into sentimental schmaltz; a young idealistic, pro-Castro student meets a defiantly gay student and despite their differences and polarised opinions, a friendship develops. It’s to the directors’ credit that this narrative becomes not just believable but also moving. We genuinely care about these two young men, initially drawn to the other through self-interest (Diego wishes to pick David up, David is determined to observe for any suspicious activities) but finding a common ground and shared love of their homeland.
The main difference between David and Diego is not directly political but a matter of sexuality. David might be loyal to the regime that has provided him, a labourer’s son, an education that he probably otherwise would not have received, but Diego’s politics are practically defined by his sexuality. To be homosexual automatically makes one a dissident, whether one wishes to be or not. Diego never expresses much in the way of vocal disobedience towards the regime but he’s considered worth being kept under surveillance because of his sexuality. Alea and Tabio are refreshingly honest about the shocking record of Castro’s Cuba towards gay rights. Gay Cubans had been imprisoned in UMAP labour camps without trial for “re-education” and “rehabilitation” for decades, famously documented in the experience of Reinaldo Arenas, about whom the film ‘Before Night Falls’ (2000) was based.
Homosexuality was finally decriminalised in 1979, the year the film is set, yet with this knowledge, one can easily imagine what fate might befall Diego. Such are the prospects that Diego seems willing to leave Cuba by the film’s dénouement, though it’s left sufficiently ambivalent after his fraternal embrace with David. Alea and Tabio make Diego an articulate spokesperson for homosexuals in Cuba, explaining that he understands many of the merits of the revolution but that this society automatically rejects him as a person and decides him to be “sick”. If he is unfaithful to his own sex, then surely he is unfaithful to the revolution? That Diego confronts David’s prejudices and elicits a sense of understanding and compassion from him hints at a more optimistic era for homosexuals in Cuba, further reinforced by the fact that ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ was made with 15 years of hindsight.
Where ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ arguably suffers most is regarding character development. The film’s chief protagonists are largely cardboard cut-outs, stereotypes – David, the straight, macho idealist (with Miguel even more so), Diego, the enlightened, cultured and exceptionally flamboyant homosexual, and Nancy, the ex-prostitute with a heart of gold, who pursues David, which is of course the only kind of relationship that Diego would accept for David, given that his own love for him is unrequited. That said, if David and Diego represent polarised opinions in the debate on homosexuality in Cuba, then perhaps they don’t have to become fully fleshed out characters – it renders the film a little one-dimensional however.
Nevertheless, ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ is an undeniably brave film, tackling issues that would normally be taboo in Cuban society and the directors’ humanistic vision of a Cuba where sexual, if not political, differences are accepted is both heartfelt and convincing. Whilst sex might have been the prime focus during the start of the film; David’s own lust for Vivian or Diego’s attempts to seduce the clearly heterosexual David, this quickly gives way to a wider curiosity about the things that make us different – David for instance sees contemporary Cuba through a different set of eyes, notably in a rooftop scene across Havana where Diego gives a real state of the nation address. David’s confidence in the success of the revolution is a little shaken and no doubt he would work towards something better, something different. ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ isn’t simple moralising though, but a profound look at Castro’s Cuba as shown through a moving, if unlikely friendship.
‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ was released on DVD on 16 March 2009 by Mr Bongo Films.