By Zachary Woodruff
THE CURRENT FARE of the Catalina Cinemas on Campbell and Grant includes three homosexual-based films: The Sum Of Us, The Priest and Strawberry & Chocolate. Which one to see? The tale of the homosexual man whose chipper, heterosexual father is so good-hearted he cruises bars with his son just to see what it's all about? How about the tale of the gay Catholic Priest who enjoys cruising bars with a different kind of "Father"? Still not intrigued?
Then try the third choice, Strawberry & Chocolate, which avoids bars entirely in favor of ice cream, Cuban politics and high-quality characterization.
Set in 1979 Havana, Strawberry & Chocolate tells the story of two men--one gay, one straight--who develop an enriching friendship despite their opposing ideologies. Directed with grace and attention to detail by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, from a screenplay by Senel Paz, the picture stands two scoops above the other gay-themed films in its midst.
The title, of course, comes from each man's choice of ice cream. Even if you don't see the movie, the concept of the title is hard to resist. So gays like one flavor and straights like another--why can't both flavors be considered tasty? (And what sexual orientation is butterscotch?)
The picture opens by establishing the straight character, David (Vladimir Cruz), as a man whose commitment to noble ideals always seems to backfire. When his fiancée complains at being taken to a cheap hotel for sex, he vows that "I won't make love to you till we're married--and in a five-star hotel." Whoops, bad move: David's fiancée dumps him, and his heartache leaves him determined to stay celibate.
That's when we meet Diego (Jorge Perugorria), a gay man who makes a miscalculation of his own when he sees David sitting alone and tries to pick up on the unpickupable.
Strawberry & Chocolate really comes to life in the scene when David, a naive college student who believes strongly in the communist rhetoric of his government, sheepishly resists the advances of Diego, who turns out to be an intellectual who questions the revolution, and whose manner might best be likened to a wolf with a lisp.
The scene plays like a suspenseful tennis match between reluctance and determination. Back at Diego's apartment, Diego tells David that 60 percent of men have had homosexual encounters. "I'm in the other forty percent," David says flatly. Undaunted, Diego spills tea on David's shirt and insists that he take it off so he can clean it. And on it goes, with Diego finding a way to use each rejection as the starting point for his next wave of attack.
This interplay might seem ugly if it ended with David's seduction, but the filmmakers have other motives. Pretending to be intrigued, David returns to Diego's again and again to dutifully find out more about the man's subversive political activities. In the process, the real content of Strawberry & Chocolate becomes apparent: the gradual opening of each man's eyes as he gets to know the other.
This is a standard plotline for any odd-couple movie pairing, and the scenario comes precariously close to an imitation of Kiss of the Spiderwoman. But Strawberry & Chocolate details its characters so smoothly that you scarcely notice. And exceptional, three-dimensional performances by Cruz and Perugorria provide even the most typical moments (including a scene in which David tries to describe to Diego "how delicious a woman can be") with a fresh appeal.
Strawberry & Chocolate also succeeds because of the deceptive modesty of its intentions. The whole middle section of the movie is tied up with the establishment of a third character, a rather cheery suicidal woman whom Diego refers to as Vigilance (Mirta Ibarra). The three enter a sort of friendship triangle, and it begins to appear that David's gay-hating, dogma-spewing roommate (Francisco Gatorno) will turn them in to the authorities. Surely tragedy must be afoot.
What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that these situations were created merely to illuminate the men's friendship.
Which is why I liked Strawberry & Chocolate. Often it seems that movies about homosexuals, as well as other minorities, fall into the trap of whining about mistreatment and shouting bland statements about human equality. Not that such sentiments aren't justified and don't bear repeating, but when you can tell you're being preached to, the mind starts to resist. Minority filmmakers must find other ways to make statements. As Diego says in a conversation with David, "Art makes you feel and think. Art does not transmit." That's an ambition Strawberry & Chocolate lives up to beautifully.
Strawberry & Chocolate is playing at Catalina (881-0616) cinemas.
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth