by John Hess
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 119-125
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's penultimate film, STRAWBERRYAND CHOCOLATE (1993) has been a popular success in Cuba, Europe and here in the United States.[open notes in new window] The film tells the story of David Alvarez, a naive, repressed university student and member of the Union of Communist Youth. One day Diego, a gay photographer and intellectual, picks up David at Coppelia, Havana's famous ice cream parlor and renowned cruising spot. Physically attracted to David, Diego hopes to seduce the younger man. David, a would-be writer, feels drawn to Diego's knowledge of literature and art and by older man's collection of hard (or impossible) to find books in Cuba, including those of the revolution's supporter turned critic, Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru) and gay writers José Lezama Lima (Cuba) and Juan Goytisolo (Spain).
Soon, however, David makes it clear that he is straight; a friendship develops between the two men, based on their shared interest in art and literature, Diego essentially becoming David's tutor. However, David's passage to manhood or maturity remains blocked by his inability to consummate a sexual relationship, dramatically represented in the opening pre-credit sequence. Here too Diego becomes involved: he helps engineer David's relationship with Nancy, his neighbor and close friend, going so far as to offer Nancy money to sleep with David. In the end, going to bed with Nancy gives David enough self-confidence to stand up for his gay friend in public and to take possession of Nancy. Diego, the no longer needed teacher, leaves Cuba. In what follows I want to examine how Gutiérrez Alea tells this story and to critique the film's problematic sexual politics, showing how the film's clichéd melodrama, whatever the director's intent, reproduces Cuba's homophobic and sexist ideologies.
My disappointment with and critique of the film may seem harsh in light of the film's considerable popularity and its encouragement of open discussion about homosexuality in Cuba. In fact, many viewers and critics have celebrated the film as a progressive, humanistic call for greater Cuban tolerance toward and understanding of gays and lesbians.
This film (like many others that deal with social issues in melodramatic form) evokes contradictory responses. For example, we can understand the film's popularity in Cuba as deriving from the filmmaker's ability to represent a difficult contemporary issue in a way that made many Cubans feel sympathy or pity for a persecuted character and at the same time good about themselves. Some, perhaps many, Cubans saw and appreciated the film as a wider critique of the Cuban government's narrow-minded, puritan control of cultural and personal life. Gutiérrez Alea clearly indicates the strong presence of a repressive apparatus behind the scenes, monitoring many aspects of Cuban life. Also, it must have pleased many Cubans to see the first positive representation of homosexuality in a Cuban feature film. Outside Cuba, many people, gay and straight, have enjoyed seeing a well-made film with such a positive gay male character, a film that casts off the older, negative stereotypes we are all so used to seeing.
Audiences often take melodramatic representations of culturally and politically marginalized people as far more progressive than the representations really are, both because they represent people on screen whom we usually don't see there and because they refuse the most common, most negative stereotypes. We can easily critique such melodrama by looking at older work with contemporary eyes: noting atrocious gay stereotypes in Rossellini's famous neorealist classic, ROME, OPEN CITY (1945) or, going back further, noble savage stereotypes in King Vidor's effort to represent authentic black culture in HALLELUJAH (1929). In the 1970s, melodramas like BOYS IN THE BAND and NORMA RAY offended many gay or labor activists while appealing to the broader target audiences because the films were appropriately sentimental and traded in familiar stereotypes.
NEW LATIN AMERICAN CINEMA
Like many of the post-New Latin American Cinema films, STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE mixes or overlays two sets of generic elements-from the art film and melodrama. As an art film, it clearly has remnants of New Latin American Cinema. Gutiérrez Alea clearly made a "serious" film to encourage tolerance for homosexuals or anyone who is different-including religious believers, lovers of art, and misfits. In this regard, the director deserves enormous credit. Already ill from cancer, he summoned his considerable personal and artistic powers to make a statement that few, if any others, in ICAIC (the Cuban Film Institute) could make. In fact, as Ian Lumsden reports, ICAIC permitted this project while "it simultaneously blocked all attempts by its gay members...to produce work with gay themes." Gutiérrez Alea uses a familiar didactic structure, the Bildungsroman, the education of an innocent into the ways of the world. The narrative's double openendedness plays a key role in this didactic structure.
First, David, the Communist, has entered into a serious relation with Nancy, a former prostitute many years his senior, a black marketeer, a religious believer (in both Christianity and Santería). It is hard to imagine how such contradictory people might live in Cuba, how David might remain a member of the Communist Party while also remaining true to Nancy. Second, Miguel has viciously attacked David, calling him a faggot and threatening political consequences. Such serious charges would certainly have damaged if not destroyed a young man like David's career, especially in 1979 when the film is set. By leaving unresolved such powerful enigmas having to do with David's future, the director hopes to generate reflection and interaction among the audience members, who hopefully will discuss the film later.
From all the evidence, it seems that Gutiérrez Alea succeeded. The film was immensely popular in Cuba and may become the most seen film in Cuban film history. (However, Brandon Judell asserts that while the film "attracted more than million moviegoers in Havana, it was allowed to play only a few days in other parts of the country, if at all." In the U.S. a documentary film GAY CUBA (Sonja de Vries, USA/Cuba, 1995) contains a short section on STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE in which several gay Cubans comment positively on the film and discuss its importance in advancing Cuba's discussion. Brief interviews with people waiting in long lines to get into the film seem to bear out these comments. [See following review of that documentary.]
Like New Latin American Cinema films, STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE intervenes in a national debate on the side of a more progressive outcome. It forms part of a more general and official Cuban effort to change Cuba's notorious anti-homosexual policies and image. By the early 1990s, these policies had already begun to change in significant ways. According to Marvin Leiner,
He quotes from a 1988 National Lawyers Guild report based on interviews with Cuban gays and lesbians:
In early 1992 as Gutiérrez Alea began to work on STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE, a play based on the same Senal Paz story had sold-out performances in Havana for two months. Also in 1992, in an official publication of the Cuban government, Fidel Castro stated he was
If homophobia had not ended, homosexuality had become a public issue and the government had begun to push for greater tolerance, if not understanding. In this context STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE, on the surface at least, becomes part of government policy rather than a radical departure or critique. Cuban writer Reynaldo Gonzalez makes just this point in analyzing the film's political position:
Gonzalez sees the film as coming out of a context in which the government seeks to make up for
All this remains surface didacticism, understandable to anyone familiar with the changes that have been taking place in Cuba regarding gays, lesbians and the whole issue of homosexuality. However, Gonzalez also says the film does more than support government policy; it
In other words, according to Gonzalez, the film uses a government-approved but socially tricky defense of homosexuals to launch a broader, unsanctioned attack on other government policies of the recent past. Importantly, in culturally limited, even repressive societies, audiences adeptly read subtleties in conventional, stereotyped representations — the only kind permitted. Local audiences see such works (e.g., much Eastern European cinema in the 1960s and 70s, and Brazilian "Tropicalism" in the late 1960s and 70s) as resistant and progressive, while in other countries these films' stereotyping seems to weaken that cinema as social critique.
Gutiérrez Alea offers a very broad critique — against past Cuban repression of artistic culture and political debate. The film's title sequence sets it in 1979, a time just before the 1980 Mariel exodus and the acknowledgment of AIDS, and a time of vicious oppression of out gays and lesbians in Cuba. Cultural bureaucrats marginalized many intellectuals and artists; cultural institutions and the universities were often purged of people not having the appropriate "moral qualities" demanded by the 1971 Congress on Education and Culture (ibid. 16). Thus STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE's real political bite, according to Gonzalez, comes from its broadly targeting the marginalization of intellectuals and artists in the 1970s. He suggests, but does not say that sovietized cultural bureaucrats purged cultural institutions and universities to serve a narrow, muscular, puritan notion of culture, which allowed the conflation of any sensitivity to culture beyond prescribed, narrow boundaries with homosexuality. After all, intellectuals would find it more difficult to defend one another against charges of homosexuality and moral turpitude than against charges of insufficient obeisance to socialist realism, against which Che Guevara had spoken so forcefully in the mid-1960s. If this is the case, it helps explain the film's strange conflation of homosexuality and the life of the independent intellectual.
We can see this conflation in the film's mise-en-scene, especially that of Diego's apartment in Old Havana, the location of real desire in the film. By this I mean that Diego and especially his apartment represent the forbidden and therefore also highly desirable image of the bohemian, of the independent intellectual. The first time David enters this space, he stands in awe. His eyes, in a clearly established point-of-view shot, lovingly scan the walls, covered with all manner of art (photos, paintings, clippings from periodicals, parts of colonial wrought-iron decorations, wooden cherubs and angels) and the shelves filled with books, magazines, sound tapes, small figures and other objets d'art. In one corner stands an elaborate altar with a large statue of a saint. On the floor are plaster busts of religious figures, done by Diego's friend German.
Diego plays music, ranging from opera star Maria Callas to Cuban New Song star Sara Gonzales. Diego talks about John Donne, Cafavi, Lezama Lima, and José Martí, of whom he also has a picture on the wall. On one wall someone has painted a huge, very sensuous image, looking like the midriff of a male body covered only partially by a cloth. As Diego goes to fix coffee, David begins to explore the apartment, supposedly looking for photos which Diego said he had of David. Instead, David finds photos of naked young men. David has a strong desire to know this very mysterious world, and his fascination draws him back time and again to this apartment in spite of the obvious dangers.
With considerable sensual power here and elsewhere in the film (especially in those several scenes in which Diego instructs David and teaches him to really see Havana, to really observe the life around him), Gutiérrez Alea conveys his feelings about the life of the independent intellectual and significantly about the course he himself struggled to follow throughout his adult life. He never joined the party or took leadership positions in the film institute or cultural bureaucracy. As Cuba's premiere film director he could have easily left to make films in many other countries. But he stayed, worked, taught others, and always cast a critical cinematic eye on the revolution he supported but wanted to make better. However, though the film has Gutiérrez Alea's subtle critique of the government's repression of intellectuals and artists in the 1970s, this theme is only implied. It becomes buried under the melodramatic story of David's sexual development.
STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE AS MELODRAMA
STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE is not just an art film with roots in New Latin American Cinema. It is also a readerly film and a melodrama. It has none of the Brechtian distancing devices of MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (1968) or even the juxtapositions between the fictional sequences proper and the video documentary footage (though completely diegetic) Gutiérrez Alea used in UP TO A POINT (1984). When asked about this difference, the director responded somewhat wistfully that MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT
As a readerly film, however, STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE is constructed out of quickly grasped clichés and stereotypes — none more obvious than the stereotype that associates gay men with a passion for and sensitivity to culture and refinement. How different the film would be, for example, if David were the homosexual rather than the more mature and cultured Diego. For example, this would place the issue of homosexuality within the ranks of the Communist Party. It would also undermine the classic cliché of the cultured gay man seducing the naive younger man.
At the core of STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE we find the story of David's political, cultural, and sexual awakening. I want to look at how one can imagine such an awakening in Cuba today and how this conventional story will be sexually and politically figured. As Julia Lesage wrote about a much earlier readerly film,
CHARACTERS, PLOTS, AND SEXUAL TRAITS
STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE creates an interesting configuration of characters with clearly marked sexual, political and cultural traits that revolve around the central character, David Alvarez. In fact, the film establishes clear oppositions between two sets of characters, one male, the other female. On the one hand, are Miguel, a clearly macho and more mature Communist student at the University, who sends David on a mission to spy on the other male figure, his opposite, Diego, the highly cultured gay photographer who has lost his illusions about the Revolution and eventually must leave Cuba to maintain his humanity. On the other hand, are Vivian and Nancy. Vivian, the conventional woman David loves and pursues unsuccessfully throughout most of the film, expects macho behavior from him and marries an older, successful man, because she wants to "live well" and "begin a family immediately." Her opposite, Diego's neighbor and soulmate Nancy, is a former prostitute, practicing Catholic and Santera, and black marketeer who has frequently attempted suicide. Interestingly, Nancy was not in Senal Paz's original story from which the film is made.
Miguel and Vivian are upwardly mobile conformists who live out their prescribed, conventional sex roles within a Revolution that they see only in terms of its bureaucratic structures, rules and regulations. They represent the continued vitality of small-minded, pre-revolutionary petit-bourgeois values within the Revolution. Neither shows any interest in culture or any sensitivity to those around them — especially David, whom they powerfully influence early in the film. In contrast, Diego and Nancy are outsiders and rebels. They live as downwardly mobile nonconformists, who are warm, loving, sensitive, eclectic in their tastes and who see the Revolution in terms of the personal and their lost ideals.
Within this constellation of static, and for Gutiérrez Alea dysfunctional, stereotypes we find David, in all senses a virgin — politically, culturally, and sexually — a tabula rasa. Who, we wonder, will write on him and what will they write? It seems fair to say that while Gutiérrez Alea's primary interest here is cultural politics, sex serves to make that discussion more lively, appealing to a mass audience. However sex is never just sex. To quote Lesage again:
The oppositions that Gutiérrez Alea sets up regarding both male and female sexuality are complicated (or clarified) by two other characters, who operate to seal off his left flank, so to speak; they serve to "normalize" for the audience what might at first glance appear too extreme. In the opening scene in the posada, the room-by-the-hour hotel where David and Vivian have gone for sex, while Vivian is preparing herself in the adjacent bathroom, David, drawn by a woman's orgiastic groans, looks through a peephole into the next room. There he sees a huge breasted woman in the throes of ecstasy, wildly riding her faceless lover's inert body. This image of energetic female sexual agency is so disconcerting to David that he fussily and obsessively rearranges things in the room and fails to consummate a sexual relation with Vivian. This extreme image of female sexuality counters and normalizes Nancy's later seduction of David, which appears very romantic though she is a former prostitute.
In a similar manner, Diego's gay sexuality is countered and domesticated, so to speak, by German's much more flamboyant queen or loca mannerisms. Asked by Dennis West if Diego represented a stereotypical loca, Gutiérrez Alea protested,
Here Gutiérrez Alea repeats and thus reinforces the dreadfully cruel opposition between "normal" and "spectacular" behavior, an opposition institutionalized in the closet. Cultural bureaucrats buy off German, thus conflating his loca behavior and cowardice (another meaning of maricón). German's presence insures Diego's "normality" (he's not like German) but robs Diego of his sexuality.
POSSESSING A VIRGIN
Maricón, usually translated as "faggot" in the film, has a restricted and specific meaning in Cuban sexual culture: a maricón is a man who is penetrated by another man. Within Cuban machismo, fucking another man does not necessarily identify a man as homosexual; only being fucked does, i.e., being in the passive role, being a woman. Interestingly, in STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE both Miguel and Diego symbolically possess David in a way that makes him a maricón. After David and Diego have drunk "the enemy's whiskey" to their new friendship, we see Miguel helping David vomit in their dorm's large shower stall. Both are dressed only in brief underwear and Miguel stands behind David with his arms around him. He slaps David's ass, commenting on its voluptuousness. At least, one critic noticed the implications:
After another bout of drinking after his final good-bye from Vivian, David lies shirtless with his pants partially open on Diego's couch. Diego's erotic gaze moves from David's curly locks, across his beautiful face and hairy chest to his open fly — pure beefcake. Finally, Diego lovingly covers David with a blanket and goes into the next room to ask Nancy to initiate the youth into sex!
A young man, described by Gutiérrez Alea as an ephebus — a virginal youth in ancient Greece — was stunned by a vision of female sexuality and unable to perform with Vivian; he then becomes prey to the eyes and bodies of more powerful males. The feminized, vulnerable, androgynous body becomes an erotic turn-on for both straight and gay men, becomes the maricón. The only way David can "redeem" himself is through heterosexual sex. Doing this, he also redeems those around him by exercising power over them.
An important motif of redemption runs through this film. David gives his blood to Nancy in the hospital after she has tried to kill herself. Later, just before she hangs herself in front of a Beatles poster, she realizes that she really does want to sleep with David. She climbs down, showers and prays that he will find her attractive. Nancy also tells the Santero she visits for advice that in spite of her checkered past, David will find something clean in her. David, having slept with Nancy and ending his embarrassing virginity, is now able to go into public space with Diego, to Coppelia where they first met, and even to imitate Diego's effeminate appreciation of strawberry ice cream. This new male confidence compels Diego to confess his plot to seduce David and also that he often asked David for hugs, because he thought that it would "make him clean."
Thus in the projected fantasy lives of the film's two most interesting and attractive characters, the gay intellectual and the independent woman, only heterosexuality, only acquiescing to straight male domination can redeem them. This narrative structure resembles that of Hollywood melodrama, in which the absence of a strong patriarchal figure often leads to sexual and emotional chaos, which only a patriarch's return can redeem. Here only David, whose primary claim to importance is a working penis and heterosexual desire, can bring order. But what sort of order is this? One that requires the purging of the independent intellectual (and gay man) and the subjugation of the independent woman.
MALE OPTIONS UNDER SOCIALISM
As STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE sketches out male options under Cuban socialism, they are surprisingly similar to what we find in capitalist cultures. There is a strong opposition between the macho, whose power comes ultimately from his conformity to state power (represented by Miguel) and the outsider, the artist figure, ultimately the romantic hero of 19th century literature and 20th century film. Diego's apartment is a combination of religious shrine, library, and art gallery. He is the soft, feminized lover of art and culture. Instead of the unattainable women, he pursues the equally unattainable straight man. His revolt against the Cuban cultural establishment fails, German abandons him, and eventually he must flee the country.
These options are placed before David. Gutiérrez Alea wants us to see that David's development draws (must draw) from both these masculine positions. But the film's unification of apparently opposed traits — David's becoming the committed revolutionary who loves beauty and sensitivity — requires exorcising homosexuality and subjugating women. Diego must forgo and hide his sexuality and then leave, while Nancy comes under David's protection. When the men get together at Moro Castle and joke about sex, Diego says that while Nancy is tough on the outside, she is really like a sparrow that can be easily hurt. David's appropriately macho response?
Gutiérrez Alea struggles here to imagine a joining of revolutionary commitment and the life of the independent intellectual in David Alvarez — a position he himself fought to maintain throughout his career. The cost, however, is very high. As the film exorcises male love and female intelligence and independence, its conclusion shows the emptiness, loneliness, and the clear sense of loss which David experiences — perfectly and terribly expressed by the final image of David's anguished, tear stained face.
I presented an earlier version of this analysis at the Fifth Conference on Latin American Popular Culture at Tulane University in October, 1996 and want to thank Ana Lopez and Studies in Latin American Popular Culture for that opportunity. I would also like to thank my film theory students at Ithaca College who joined me in analyzing this film last fall. Finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Chanan, Chuck Kleinhans, Julia Lesage, and Tom Waugh for their feedback and advice during the final writing process.
1. Though, like most other critics, I will discuss this film as a Gutiérrez Alea film, it is very important to point out that it was by all reports a close collaboration between him and Juan Carlos Tabío. Gutiérrez Alea was ill during much of the shooting and actually absent from Cuba during some of it. Juan Carlos Tabío played a major role in the completion of this film and deserves more credit that he will probably ever receive.
2. Ian Lumsden, Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996) 194.
3. Ibid. 195.
4. See Dennis West, "Strawberry and Chocolate, Ice Cream and Tolerance: Interviews with Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío," Cineaste 21.1-2 (1995): 16-20.
5. Brandon Judell, "The Flavor of Freedom," 10 Percent, 3.12 (January, 1955): 38.
6. Marvin Leiner, Sexual Politics in Cuba: Machismo, Homosexuality, and AIDS (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994) 49.
7. Reynaldo Gonzalez, "Meditation for a Debate, or Cuban Culture with the Taste of Strawberry and Chocolate," CUBA Update, 15.2 (May, 1994) 15.
8. In 1978 several JUMP CUT editors, including Julia Lesage and myself, visited Cuba on a trip organized by Tricontinental Films (who was then distributing Cuban films in the U.S.). In an effort to initiate a dialogue with the film people and intellectuals we met about homosexuality, we took about 50 copies of JUMP CUT #16, containing our first special section on homosexuality and film and our editorial supporting the gay liberation struggles then taking place here. In JUMP CUT #19 (Dec., 1978) we ran our first special section on Cuban cinema and included an editorial expressing both our support for the Cuban Revolution and our criticism of their repression of homosexuality.
9. I am borrowing Roland Barthes' distinction between the writerly and the readerly text. For him the writerly was the complex, avant-garde text that the reader had to become involved in and work to complete, while the readerly text consisted of easily consumed conventions and stereotypes that required only acceptance or rejection. See S/Z, An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974): 4. Julia Lesage translated Barthes literary theory into film theory in "S/Z and RULES OF THE GAME." Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: UC Press, 1985): 476-500. (Originally in JUMP CUT, #12/13 ).
10. Lawrence Chua, "I Scream, You Scream: Lawrence Chua Talks with Tomás Gutiérrez Alea," Artforum International, 33.4 (December 1, 1994): 102.
11, In this article I have closely followed the structure of Lesage's analysis of D. W. Griffith's BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), including using some of her subtitles. As I was working on this analysis, I was also teaching her article and was struck by the similar sexual politics in two otherwise very different films. Her article, "Artful Racism, Artful Rape, Griffith's BROKEN BLOSSOMS" can be found in JUMP CUT, No. 26(1981): 51-55; in Jump Cut: Hollywood, Politics and Counter Cinema, ed. Peter Steven (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1985) 247-269; and in Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: BFI, 1987) 235254. I am using this last source. This quote is on page 235.
12. Julia Lesage has reminded me of the similarities between Diego and the earlier Sergio in MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT. Both are feminized men who are very cultured. Early in MEMORIES we see Sergio pull on some of his wife's clothing and pose in front of a mirror. One wonders what this fantasy means to Gutiérrez Alea. Is it, for example an appealing but forbidden image? Is it a part of his fantasy life which he knows can't be developed in Revolutionary and Macho Cuba? Is it a fear? In fact, most of Gutiérrez Alea's central male characters are feminized men who ultimately fail through exhaustion, lack of will, or incomprehension at film's end. Usually, they are able to hand off to or find some other center of responsibility, a role often played in the earlier films by the people/the masses. The optimism of the earlier films no longer lights up STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE, leading to considerable sentimentality in the film.
13. Chris Berry, "Strawberry and Chocolate," Filmnews (Australia), 25.2 (April, 1995): 13. Miguel's "repressed" (homo)sexuality sets in motion two very common conventions. In left film after WW2 particularly, we find the theme, derived from the work of Wilhelm Reich, of repressed sexuality resulting in some form of authoritarianism (of the left in Makaveyev's WR-MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM(197l) and of the right in Bertolucci's THE CONFORMIST(1969) and many other Italian films. In a common stereotype, we read extreme homophobic rhetoric as neurotic repression of the forbidden desire. Needless to say, these two conventions tell us more about the filmmaker's personal and cultural fantasies than about the real lives of homosexual artists and intellectuals in Cuba.
14. This is an interesting moment in the context of what Ian Lumsden says about "coming out" in Cuba. There "sexual orientation is inferred from gender identity . That means that if you behave "normally," everyone will "assume that you are basically heterosexual even if you have been known to have had sex with another man"(133). Conversely, if you display effeminate mannerisms, you will be assumed to be gay, even if people know nothing about your sex life. The issue is outward display, public behavior, carriage, posture.