Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Cuban Sundae: Strawberry or Chocolate?

Cubans are crazy for all things Hollywood. There’s no question that their number-one matinee idol is Che Guevara, whose soulful image shows up everywhere. But there’s also passionate enthusiasm for Marilyn Monroe, the queen of the souvenir shops. It’s not so surprising that the faces of these two popular icons make an appearance as part of the décor in Cuba’s most famous homegrown movie, Strawberry and Chocolate. Or, if you want to be a purist, Fresa y Chocolate. This film, from 1993, has the signal distinction of being the only Cuban movie ever to be nominated for a foreign language Oscar. No, it didn’t win: it was up against Russia’s Burnt by the Sun (the eventual winner) as well as Ang Lee’s Taiwanese-language feature, Eat Drink Man Woman. But, as they say, it’s an honor just to be considered.

Strawberry and Chocolate was financed in part by the
Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos,with help from both Spain and Mexico. Given the movie’s Cuban governmental connection, its subject matter comes as something of a surprise. This film, frank in its dialogue and in its depiction of the human body, is basically an exploration of what it’s like to be a gay man in post-revolutionary Cuba. From reading the work of my screenwriting students who have Cuban backgrounds, I know there was a time when to be gay was to be considered an enemy of the state, with consequences that were often horrendous. This film doesn’t go quite so far, but it hardly shies away from revealing the nation’s deeply-entrenched homophobia. (These days, I doubt Cuba has become a paradise for homosexuals, but they do have a powerful public champion in Raul Castro’s daughter.)

Strawberry and Chocolate was shot in the difficult era when Cuba was trying to move past its lucrative former connection with the Soviet Union. The first character we meet, David, is a poor university student caught up in revolutionary ideology. He wants to be a writer, but is majoring in political science because he feels this is the best way to help serve his people. He’s a straight-ahead guy, and a bit of an innocent. His one try at romance has not worked out well.

Cut to a scene at Coppélia, Havana’s famous “ice cream park.” This huge installation, the size of a city block, was promoted by Fidel Castro as a place to provide sweet treats to the Cuban masses at rock-bottom prices. It’s there that David is accosted by Diego, who is waspish, witty, and decidedly gay. He’s also well acquainted with art, literature, and classical music. He lures David to his imaginatively cluttered flat, nattering on about an art exhibit he and a friend will stage through a foreign embassy. Though David has no wish to pursue the acquaintance, his strait-laced college roommate decides that Diego is clearly subversive, and that it’s David’s patriotic duty to investigate him.

The plot of the film, such as it is, does not go where you’d think it might. Fundamentally, it’s a character study of two young men with very different preferences, though an emotionally complex neighbor lady who skirts the law in large ways and small also figures in. From what I saw on screen, the Havana of 25 years ago hasn’t changed much from what I witnessed in person this past December. There’s still beauty and clutter, vibrant people in dilapidated surroundings. To the extent that this is a love story, it’s mostly a valentine to a city and a culture that, despite the quirks of a byzantine political system, are still unforgettable.

No comments:

Post a Comment