"Strawberry and Chocolate" ventures into uncharted regions, the zone of connection between straight and gay males, notable for an absence of etiquette and an excess of awkwardness. To this it adds yet another level of complexity: a totalitarian cultural milieu in which homosexuals are axiomatically scorned as politically unreliable.
Sitting at a table near a Havana ice cream stand, orthodox, rigid young David is feeling blue. The woman he loves has just married a man she doesn't love, because that man's prospects are better in the depressed economy. Suddenly, he feels somebody's hot eyes on him.
It's a classic gay pickup. Diego, a few years older, is vivid, theatrical, sublimely self- assured, and he swoops down on David like Casanova seducing a country girl. Soon David finds himself in Diego's apartment. It's like no other place he's ever been, full of subversive art, unobtainable books, interesting furniture, elegant liquors -- all of it a bit much to handle for a peasant boy being treated to a college education by the state.
But there are other pleasures, equally recondite: One is the passionate, almost enveloping attention that Diego is paying to him. He's used to being a member of a class and a party, not an individual. A second attraction is Diego's incisive, ironic intelligence. Witty, self-dramatizing, fearless and penetrating, Diego sees things differently and speaks truths that are mind-numbing to the straight-laced David.
Eventually, Diego makes veiled sexual suggestions but nothing that's quite a pass, and David, who was a virgin when he went to the apartment, is still one when he leaves. Troubled, he confesses the odd encounter to his roommate, Miguel, who urges him to continue the relationship -- but as a spy, as Miguel thinks that Diego may be a traitor and he sees the possibility of scoring points with the regime. So he encourages Diego to return to the apartment to monitor Diego's political sympathies.
But there's another issue: The director, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, very carefully points out the sexual subtext to Miguel's relationship with David. It's a sublimated homoeroticism, made clear one astonishing night when Miguel lovingly manhandles the drunken David into bed.
What happens, of course, is that the rigid young man blossoms under his exposure to Diego, who is ultimately a kind and wise fellow. Diego, for example, has the guts to tell David the truth about his dreary party-line stories, much praised for their political orthodoxy but artistically moribund. Diego's also a fighter. He believes in his former lover Germane's talent as a sculptor and is willing to fight the authorities to display it. He's much more heroic than the ostensibly "macho" Miguel.
In outline, the film almost seems like an E.M. Forster story crossed with a bit of John le Carre: A muted homosexual triangle in which the object of the passion is straight and the two antagonists represents opposite political values, one humanistic, one totalitarian. And buried in the narrative is a texture of political intrigue and espionage.
If you saw it (it's at the Rotunda), of course, such chilly Brits as Forster and le Carre are the last names you'd think of, for the movie is jammed with a sense of place and climate. It's a tropic zone, they're having a heat wave. The streets seethe, the colors are bright, the emotions vivid and obvious. But its best value is the performances, particularly Jorge Perugorria as Diego.
Though he initially seems like every Campy Queen who ever swished across a '50s drama, Diego's character widens and deepens as the movie progresses, becomes more humane, more complex, more passionate. Vladimir Cruz is persuasive, but not memorable, as David.
"Strawberry and Chocolate"
Starring Jorge Perugorria and Vladimir Cruz
Directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea
Released by Miramax
Unrated (sexual situations)