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The International Writers Magazine: Review

FRESA Y CHOCOLATE (Strawberry and Chocolate)
Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos, 1993
Directors: Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio

Anne Marie-Dover

It is surprising that this film is the work of Tomas Gutierrez Alea, a dedicated revolutionary and founder of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art, not only because of its controversial theme, but also because of the implied criticism of Cuba’s revolutionary system and its attitudes towards individuality.

The combination of a bigoted and fervently heterosexual young man and an older, decadent homosexual non-conformist artist and dedicated poseur, is already very promising, but when we place them in late 70’s Cuba, the plot reveals a sensitivity that has made Fresas y Chocolate one of the most celebrated Latin American films of the 90’s.
David, a student at the University of Havana is picked up by Diego, a homosexual artist, who has bet a friend that he can seduce the young man. Although he is rabidly homophobic, David is persuaded to go to Diego’s flat with the promise of some photographs taken while he was appearing in a play. When David’s friend Miguel hears of the eccentric flat, the religious art and contraband whisky, and of Diego’s boast that he is planning to mount an exhibition with the help of a foreign embassy, he persuades David to seek Diego in order to expose him as a counter-revolutionary,

David reluctantly takes on the role of spy and befriends Diego, but in the process becomes fascinated with Diego’s sophisticated taste in forbidden foreign literature, and classical music. He is prepared to hate Diego and turn him over to the authorities, but he comes to discover Diego as a person rather than a cliché and finds himself open to ridicule when he tries to defend and justify his new friend. Inevitably, Diego’s outspokenness lands him in trouble and the two friends face separation, but the experience has changed David’s attitude forever.

Giving the initial appearance of a melodrama about gay rights, this film encompasses a lot more. There are hints of political pressure to spy on fellow citizens and of the scorn with which revolutionaries look on religion and on any type of activity which can be considered subversive, whether it is free art or drinking Johnny Walker whisky, "the enemy’s liquor" as Diego sarcastically calls it.

There are compelling sub-plots, such as David’s obsession with his ex-girlfriend, who leaves him to marry someone else shortly after his clumsy attempt to seduce her, and the intervention of Diego’s sexy thirty-something neighbour Nancy, an amateur prostitute and black marketeer, to whom David eventually loses his virginity.

Prejudice, sexual tension and political discontent are given a compassionate treatment and the interiors in Diego’s and Nancy’s flats, which appear to be part of a decaying former grand house contribute to the delicate air of melancholy that runs through the whole piece.

Well acted, with a particularly sensitive performance by Jorge Perugorria as Diego, this film will be remembered as one of the best exponents of Cuban modern cinema.

© Anna-Marie Dover November 2007

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