'Communism sucks, girlfriend!'

An artificial performance mars vigorous political debate in Strawberry and Chocolate

Generally speaking, directors who try to make movies in which characters represent political or philosophical beliefs have a difficult time making those people feel authentic to movie audiences.

One of two things usually happens: either the filmmaker reduces the characters to strident mouthpieces (David Mamet's adaptation of his own play Oleanna showed just how disastrous and painful this misstep can be), or he attempts to salvage some humanity by draping the characters in archetypal mannerisms and, in the process, loses the intellectual thread (Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spiderwoman had its occasional gorgeous moments, but William Hurt and Raul Julia eventually drifted away from us in the currents of woozy romanticism).

Strawberry and Chocolate, the new film by award-winning Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea (with assistance from Juan Carlos Tabio), manages to make both these mistakes--yet not quite qualify as a failure. The centerpiece of this melodrama-laced comedy is the relationship between a flamboyant gay man (Jorge Perugorria) and an earnest but unimaginative hetero college student (Vladimir Cruz) in 1979 Havana. Perugorria betrays his own smart performance by troweling on queeny mannerisms, while Cruz relies too heavily on the stern Communist dogma he spouts, leaving a hollow core to his character.

But the screenplay, adapted by gay Cuban writer Senel Paz from his own story, is eloquent enough to produce genuine moments of transcendence. We feel the enormous emotional strain the Cuban political system has placed on these men, because Paz knows just the right places to break his ongoing conflict between individuality and conformism with a fiery, confrontational passage.

Perugorria plays Diego, an employee of a government cultural agency who places his belief in art--and personal pleasure--above the ascetic demands of the Revolution. Diego's room is papered in magazine images of Chaplin, Monroe, and other Western pop royalty and festooned with tortured, bloody Catholic iconography. He reads the great English Romantic poets as well as forbidden pre-Communist Cuban writers. He also indulges in gustatory no-nos like prime-cut steak and Johnny Walker whiskey, provided by his best friend and next-door neighbor Nancy (Mirta Ibarra, the wife of director Alea), a former prostitute who makes her living in the black market.

Diego meets David (Cruz) on an ice cream parlor patio and insinuates himself into the younger man's life with less than noble intentions. He manages to coax David back to his apartment with blackmail bait--Diego claims he has photographed David in a school production of Ibsen's A Doll House (the first indication we get that David is not the whole-hearted Marxist he claims to be). David, who has since joined a macho Youth League, is determined to seize the pictures before his peers discover his "frivolous" past pursuits.

Unwittingly at first, he becomes trapped in Diego's world of consumption and creative worship. He is disgusted by the man's unabashed effeminacy and hedonistic tendencies, but soon learns to respect the enormous resolve it takes for Diego just to survive in a country where individual identity is considered not only a crime, but a sin in the face of the revolutionary call.

Strawberry and Chocolate brings some welcome subtleties to the predictable two-character ideological face-off, most notably that Diego, like David (and filmmaker Alea), is an ardent socialist. His tastes are not the expressions of a capitalist sympathizer, but a man who believes that communism should serve as a springboard to the highest development of the soul. In effect, he differs from David not in purpose but style. And the filmmakers don't attempt to transform Diego into a cardboard saint--he is seen in a violent, petty quarrel with a former lover, and his friendship with the film's other outsider, Nancy, is predicated on his serving as nurse-maid to her theatrical, suicidal impulses.

Perhaps the film's biggest coup is the heterosexual director's willingness to let Diego's gaze direct the camera. In one scene, after David has passed out from too much food and drink, Alea films him stretched out on a couch with Diego fondly watching him. Our attention is directed in a supple downward arc from David's bare chest across his stomach to the unbuttoned fly on his jeans. Cut to an enraptured Diego--who's spent too much of the film in canine heat for his conversational partner. This scene is his vindication, chaste but redolent with desire.

Yet these complexities are too often muffled when you watch Jorge Perugorria in action as Diego. His feminine overtones aren't the problem--it makes sense for Diego to be nelly, an object of derision for the testosterone-drunk reactionaries with whom he collides--it's the artificial measures he takes to achieve them. Diego never fails to lift a cup without an erect pinkie; his favorite posture is against a wall, arms crossed, one hand stroking his throat. He's forever calling David "honey" and "darling" and "you little beast." He's not an unlikely individualist, just another queeny buffoon on the make for a straight conquest.

Strangely, in the more reflective scenes, there's a measured wisdom to Perugorria's delivery that makes you wonder exactly where Diego's exaggerated persona originated. He is an actor who, like Antonio Banderas (they bear a strong resemblance), anticipates everything with his eyes. You could drown in those pools of sad-hopeful liquid brown--if only the performer would let you.

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