When news hit in December that the US would normalize relations with Cuba, lots of people started exploring how soon they could visit the enigmatic island.
The film community was no exception. Within weeks, trade publications were chewing on that story like Fidel on a new cigar. “Will the island develop into a filmmaking destination?” Variety probed. “Industry Optimistic on New US-Cuban Era,” proclaimed The Hollywood Reporter.
Conan O’Brien may have shot his late-night show there this past weekend, but purists can rest easy: the streets of Havana aren’t likely to be flooded by Hollywood types anytime soon. American film crews have been kept away for decades by the embargo, and it’s unclear how - or how quickly - things might change now.
Even more exciting, though, is the potential for growth of Cuba’s own constricted film industry. New avenues for international distribution and financing could potentially open up. And, the Diario de Cuba newspaper has been reporting on a proposal by a group of artists for a new national film law that would,
among other features, create a film fund for Cuban productions.
Discussions about the new law have taken place at a cultural center in Havana known as the Centro Cultural Fresa y Chocolate, named for one of Cuba’s most beloved films of all times, “Strawberry and Chocolate.”
Here’s hoping for an outpouring of Cuban movies as complex and gratifying as this 1993 classic which, in many ways, has taken on renewed relevance in the country’s current political context.
“Strawberry and Chocolate”
Co-directed by legendary Cuban filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea with Juan Carlos Tabio, “Strawberry and Chocolate” uses the unexpected friendship between two men -- one a militant Communist student, the other a flamboyantly gay intellectual -- as an allegory to reflect on both the promises and the disappointments of the Cuban Revolution 20 years on.
It’s 1979, and Havana is a vibrant but dilapidated city where locals stand in long lines for basic goods and dollars are traded on a bustling black market, where books from abroad are banned, neighbors spy on one another, and images and maxims of Fidel and Che are omnipresent.
We’re introduced to this complex reality in the film’s opening sequences. David (Vladimir Cruz) has rented a grimy hotel room to finally seduce his girlfriend, but when she breaks down crying he vows not to touch her until they are married and can afford a 5-star hotel.
Cut to the next scene and the girlfriend is getting married... to another man. Soon after, a depressed David is approached at a cafe by the outwardly gay Diego (Jorge Perugorria), who lures him back to his house on the promise of photos of his ex and forbidden novels.
Intensely put off by Diego’s mannerisms and not-so-subtle overtures, David only agrees to return to Diego’s house a second time at the insistence of his college roommate, a belligerent foot soldier on alert for the “enemy” 90 miles away (here’s looking at you, Florida).
The roommate wants David to gather information on the subversive activities of Diego, including an art exhibit he’s planning at an unnamed embassy.
As repeated visits reveal increasingly common ground, the cultured Diego evolves into a mentor and guide for David, exposing him to new ideas and new forms of art, music and literature.
And as David grows more attached to Diego, and more attracted to Diego’s neighbor Nancy (Mirtha Ibarra, Gutierrez Alea’s then-wife), he is finally able to let go of his obsession with the ex-girlfriend -- just as he’s able to slacken his blind adherence to revolutionary dogma.
“We’re going to teach humanity a lesson,” Diego says of their friendship, symbolic of the proposition that even those ostensibly unacceptable to the new Cuban society deserve a place in it and can still be ardent “believers” in both the revolution and the culture’s reigning Catholic faith.
“Strawberry and Chocolate” solidified all three of the lead actors’ places in the lexicon of Cuban cinema. With the backing of Robert Redford and 90s-era foreign-language powerhouse distributor Miramax, it also became Cuba’s first and only foreign-language Oscar nominee (it lost to the Russian entry).
The script for “Strawberry and Chocolate” was based on Senel Paz’s short story, “The Wolf, The Forest and the New Man.” Paz, who also co-scripted the movie with Gutierrez Alea, is currently among those helping to draw up the new film law proposal in Cuba.
Be warned, for viewers concerned about such things: there is full nudity, some swearing and plenty of innuendo in this film.
This column originally ran in The Daily Record.