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‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 10, 1995

In Tomas Gutierrez Alea's "Strawberry and Chocolate," set in 1979, Cuban life is so ingrained with politics, you're implicated no matter what you do. Raising a glass of Johnny Walker, for instance, is sampling the drink of the enemy. Not reporting suspicious goings-on to the authorities is grounds for arrest. As for being gay, it's taboo politically and culturally.

So when David (Vladimor Cruz), a student-ideologue, and Diego (Jorge Perrugoria), a homosexual art aficionado, encounter each other at an outdoor cafe, their differences couldn't be more dramatically drawn. Their flowering friendship amounts to humanistic subversion.

It is precisely this tension that filmmaker Alea and scriptwriter Senel Paz (who adapted his short story, "The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man") take charming, ticklish delight in. Their mood is infectious and vital.

Most of the vitality comes from Perrugoria as the gay Diego, who slakes the eye-rolling flamboyance of his character with subtle, poignant moments. Disgusted at Castro's government and the way Havana is deteriorating literally and figuratively, he's clearly the voice and spirit of the movie.

When Diego lures humorless, extremely wary David into his apartment on a pretext, it's clearly an attempted seduction. What David discovers -- beyond Diego's obvious, initial intentions -- is a sight for repressive eyes: photographs of artists, books by Dostoevski and Cervantes, music by Callas -- the whole cultural gateway to the free/bourgeois world. Diego's place is also crowded with religious statues, the work of a friend, which he wants to exhibit at a gallery. Unfortunately, he tells David, he is encountering resistance from the authorities.

Convinced he has uncovered a dangerous subversive, David informs party member and fellow student Miguel (Francisco Gatorno). Miguel immediately dispatches David to find out more. Diego is quite surprised, but delighted, to see that David has returned. Feigning friendship, David starts to hang out with Diego. Neither is prepared for the surprises about each other that follow.

The second half, which chronicles David's dawning consciousness (sexual and political), and his growing relationship with Diego's neighbor Nancy (Mirta Ibarra), slows the movie's earlier momentum. But even at its most narratively lethargic, "Strawberry and Chocolate" is never less than amiable. What the movie shows best is the direct connection between politics and private life. This is a world where you turn up the music in your apartment to say anything confidential, where everyone depends on American dollars and where little jokes are laced with leaden seriousness. Offering David a glass of American whiskey to toast their new friendship, Diego teases, "Couldn't this affect you ideologically?"

STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE (Unrated) -- In Spanish with subtitles. Contains nudity, sex and profanity.

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