The New York Times

January 22, 1995, The New York Times

In Totalitarian Cuba, Ice Cream and Understanding

Film recalls persecution of gays under Castro

In the early years of the Cuban revolution, Havana’s landmark Coppelia ice cream parlor served 54 flavors. Fidel Castro boasted that this impressive array surpassed even the selection offered by that Yankee capitalist enterprise Howard Johnson’s. But with Cuba now in severe economic straits, visitors to the open-air Coppelia are lucky to find two flavors.

“Strawberry and Chocolate,” the latest work of the 66-year-old Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Cuba’s foremost director, has its key scene at the ice cream parlor, where a gay intellectual named Diego (Jorge Perugorria) contrives to pick up a heterosexual Communist militant, David (Vladimir Cruz). The film, which opened here on Friday and will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival this evening, chronicles their unlikely friendship in a controlled society where respect for diversity, be it of ice cream flavors, sex or ideas, has often been hard to come by. Caryn James of The New York Times, reviewing “Strawberry and Chocolate” at the New York Film Festival last fall, called the movie a “breezy charmer about a relationship shaped by severe political struggle.”

In Cuba, thousands of homosexuals were sent to concentration camps in the late 1960’s, together with others deemed deviant by the Castro regime. Echoing the slogan on the gates of Auschwitz, the camps were emblazoned with the words “Work will make you men.” Though the camps were shut after a few years, the subsequent purges of homosexuals from the ruling Communist Party were condemned by intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Susan Sontag.

In 1980, when angry mobs at officially organized rallies denounced gay men and women as “scum,” many homosexuals were among the 125,000 Cubans who fled in the Mariel boatlift. Cuba is the only country in the world to have quarantined homosexuals and others who test positive for H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

So it is a bit surprising that the first Cuban film to go into general release in the United States is also the island’s first with a gay hero. (It is also Cuba’s submission for the foreign film Oscar.) Set in the period between the dismantling of the notorious camps and the Mariel boatlift, “Strawberry and Chocolate” is intended to be a universal plea for tolerance, its director says.

“It’s not strictly a film about homosexuals,” Mr. Gutierrez Alea said in an interview in New York. “It is about the intolerance and incomprehension of those who are different. And that applies not only to homosexuals, but to people who think with their own head, and blacks, and everyone who is discriminated against.”

Mr. Gutierrez Alea, who because of ill health was assisted in directing “Strawberry and Chocolate” by his fellow Cuban Juan Carlos Tabio, has acquired a reputation abroad as something of an iconoclast. But while often using the camera to look at Cuba critically, he calls himself “a man who makes criticism inside the revolution, who wants to ameliorate the process, to perfect it, but not to destroy it.” His best known film, “Memories of Underdevelopment,” made in 1968, deals with a bourgeois intellectual unable to find a place in post-revolutionary Cuba. Two years earlier, Mr. Gutierrez Alea shot “Death of a Bureaucrat,” a satire on the stifling bureaucracy imposed after the revolution.

“Strawberry and Chocolate” is based on a short story by the Cuban writer Senel Paz that had limited circulation for several years before Mr. Gutierrez Alea asked the author to turn it into a screenplay. It centers on Diego, the marginalized gay protagonist who is given to drinking tea from Sevres china cups while swooning to Maria Callas records. Even if he fits a stereotype, the highly educated Diego is portrayed in remarkably sympathetic terms.

“It doesn’t mean I’m not patriotic,” Diego proclaims about his sexual identity. Indeed, his apartment constitutes a shrine to Cuban culture, about which David, for all his knowledge of Marxist politics, is largely ignorant. David, Cuba’s Everyman, eventually overcomes his aversion to homosexuals and declines to inform on Diego.

When Diego cites the persecution of homosexuals in the concentration camps known as UMAP, the Spanish acronym for Military Units to Aid Production, David replies, “That’s over now.”

“One day there will be understanding,” he continues. “That’s why it’s a revolution.”

But Diego goes on to ask who should pay for the mistakes of the revolution? Mr. Gutierrez Alea notes, “The film doesn’t give a response; the film asks a question.”

That such a question is posed at all in Castro’s Cuba contributed to the film’s resounding box office success there. “People were so turned on to the film, not so much because of the homosexual topic, but because they related to the main character’s struggle to be different in a high-pressure revolutionary context,” said Jorge Cortines, a spokesman for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco.

The organization says that official discrimination against Cuban homosexuals has eased considerably in recent years, although they remain barred from Communist Party membership. “The film had a very positive role to play in ultimately causing the current aperture,” Mr. Cortines said. When Mr. Perugorria, the film’s star, was named best actor at the Havana Film Festival a year ago, he said he accepted the honor not only for himself but, referring to homosexuals forced into exile, “for all those Cubans like Diego who are not with us tonight.”

But among exiles from Cuba, the film has provoked debate. Some regard it as signaling at least a limited political opening, while others see it as a belated propaganda ploy at a time when gay-oriented films are reaching a broader audience in the United States and Europe. “This is a desperate attempt to show there’s still hope,” said Orlando Jimenez Leal, a Cuban-born director now living in New York. “It was made with the intellectuals and the opinion makers abroad in mind.”

Mr. Jimenez Leal, who in 1961 made the first film to be banned under the revolution, likened Mr. Gutierrez Alea to the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, of whom the poet Joseph Brodsky once said, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.”

Several of the cameramen and actors who have worked with Mr. Gutierrez Alea have sought political asylum in the United States. One was the director of photography on “Strawberry and Chocolate,” Mario Garcia Joya, who shortly after the film was finished came to Los Angeles in September 1993 seeking greater economic opportunity and freedom of expression. “This film deals with intolerance in general but it deals with a problem that took place over 10 years ago,” said Mr. Garcia Joya. “It is not possible to make a film that comments on current problems.”

When the movie was shown at the New York Film Festival in September, a group of exiled Cuban homosexuals distributed leaflets charging that the movie is “manipulative of the truth.” But Jorge Ulla, another Cuban-born film maker living in New York, said, “To me it’s very important that the film got out and got made.” Referring to the Polish director whose work championed the once-barred Solidarity movement, Mr. Ulla added: “Many of the Andrzej Wajda films, for example, could have been perceived as, or accused of, being too late in tackling their subjects. It’s happened many times before. What matters is that the film is well done.”

Mr. Gutierrez Alea conceded that “Strawberry and Chocolate” is, in part, a response to an acclaimed 1983 documentary by Mr. Jimenez Leal and the Oscar-winning cinematographer Nestor Almendros about Havana’s official campaign against homosexuality. The film critic Andrew Sarris hailed that film, titled “Improper Conduct,” as the ” ‘Sorrow and the Pity’ of the Cuban Revolution.”

Last fall, Mr. Gutierrez Alea made it clear that he viewed “Improper Conduct” as “simplistic, anti-Communist propaganda.” Now, with “Strawberry and Chocolate,” he said, he hoped the film would give foreign viewers “a more complex image of our country, where you can see that homosexuals are discriminated against, as everywhere, but that it is a process and things change.”