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'Strawberry' harvest tastes better than making a mint

PARK CITY, Utah--Here is a Cuban film about a flamboyant homosexual who is freely critical of his government and society. It was shot on location in Havana. It is now in release around the world. How, I asked myself - how was it possible that this film was financed and produced in Cuba, and actually shown there, and the filmmaker was not disciplined by the government?

If I really want to know, I can ask him. Tomas Gutierrez Alea is sitting across from me on the sofa in a little house here, where his film "Strawberry and Chocolate" has just played at the Sundance Film Festival. His wife is curled up over there on a cushion. Neither one looks as if they have come from stretches in Castro's dungeons.

Before I ask him, I roll my mental clock back a couple of decades, to a meeting of the National Society of Film Critics. It is the early 1970s, and we are gathered at the Algonquin Hotel in New York for our annual meeting, and Andrew Sarris, our chairman, is proposing a special resolution in support of Gutierrez Alea, whose "Memories of Underdevelopment," we learn, is in danger of being suppressed by the Cuban government. I get the impression that Gutierrez Alea himself may end up marking off the months and years on mossy dungeon stones with his fingernails. Still plying his trade

Twenty years roll past, however, and Gutierrez Alea still lives in Cuba, still makes films, is still critical - and I can see with my own eyes that, at 72, he is healthy and in good humor. Can it be that the plight of the arts in Cuba has been overdramatized? That there is more freedom than we imagine?

"I've been making films more than 30 years," he says, in quick, accented English, "and I've been making films very critical, always. How is it possible? I should say that the image that you have here about Cuba, here in the States, is a stereotyped image: black and white. It is a Stalinist regime, or hell, or something like that." He shrugged. "Others, in Cuba, say it is paradise. Not many, but some. And it should be neither one thing or the other. It's a place where you fight to live, for there are many problems; it is very complex and you cannot reduce that image to say it is hell, or dictatorship, or something like that. It is a place where you fight for things."

That is what his hero does in "Strawberry and Chocolate" (which is in its opening weekend at the Fine Arts). The film is about two young men, one straight and Marxist, one gay and dubious about his country. It opens when the gay character, Diego, tries to pick up the straight character, David, at a cafe. ("I knew he was homosexual," David remembers, "because they had chocolate ice cream, and yet he ordered strawberry.") David accepts Diego's invitation to have coffee at his home, but eludes a seduction attempt. And Diego, who stages art and photography exhibitions, whose small flat is filled with paintings, books, recordings and sculpture, begins to take a different kind of interest in David: as a mental conquest, not a physical one.

The movie, which began as a sexual dance, continues as a cerebral one. David returns (telling himself he is "gathering evidence" of Diego's anti-Marxist tendencies), and Diego shares his enthusiasms. I was reminded of Michael Caine, revealing his love of literature in "Educating Rita." Eventually Diego makes some fairly pointed criticisms about the way things are going. Taking David up to a rooftop and sweeping his arm across Havana, he says, "We live in one of the world's most beautiful cities. You're just in time to see it before it collapses in s- - -." Surprisingly critical

Not the kind of dialogue one associates with films produced by the Havana Film Institute. In fact, ah . . . I almost hesitate to ask . . . have Fidel Castro and his ministers seen the film?

"Well, I'm sure they saw it. I don't know what they say about it."

And the general reception in Cuba?

"Fantastic . . . from the audience. It got very cold reviews from the newspapers, very poor, short and cold because many people didn't like the film on a certain level, you know. But for the audience it was a record, something like a million. It was, how do you say? . . . It was the film that had the most audience, the most successful film."

A blockbuster.

"Blockbuster, yes." He beamed.

And it also opened in Spain?

"In Spain, also, and that was a surprise to me because in Spain they don't know the Latin American cinema. They don't care about us, and yet it became in the first place of box office, so it was really important. And for me, it was great pleasure because for the first time one of my films is exposed everywhere in the world."

Gutierrez Alea is a filmmaker who literally grew up with the Cuban revolution. Like many Cuban artists and intellectuals of the 1950s, he supported Castro's uprising against the Fulgencio Batista regime. In 1955, fresh from studies in Italy and filled with the theology of neorealism, he made a short film that was seized by Batista's police. After Castro came to power, he founded the Film Institute, and his first feature, "After the Revolution" (1960), told three short stories about the uprising. But his films since then have either avoided politics (like the comedy "The Twelve Chairs" in 1962) or taken a critical perspective, like "Memories of Underdevelopment" (1968), which portrayed the unease of Havana intellectuals in a newly revolutionary society.

We have a picture in this country, I told him, of Cuba as a country that is rigid ideologically. When I saw this film, I said to myself: This film is shot in Havana, these people live in Havana, so my ideas are too simple.

Gutierrez Alea raised his eyebrows. I felt like a dog burying the wrong bone.

"But it has always been like that. There exist characters like Miguel (a humorless Marxist in the film), who is dogmatic, narrow and fanatic. You can find that character in Cuba. And also the opposite, people who are very aggressive against that attitude. Who believe it is tolerant to try to understand those who are different. Not only because they are gay but also because they think differently than you. You have to admit that people can think differently and coexist with you. That is what the film tries to tell."

There is a theory, I said, that in countries where there is repression, art flowers - even if forced underground - because the artist thrives in resistance. You've heard about this theory, I'm sure.

"I've heard about those kinds of things," he said. "I don't think so. I think the best should be to have the opportunity for everyone to say everything he wants to say. To develop your imagination."

It's my impression that homosexuality is more controversial in Latin cultures than in the United States. Is it more shocking to bourgeois society to be gay in Havana than in Europe or America?

He nodded. "You also have discrimination. But the difference is that here you fight openly, the gays finally proclaim their condition openly, and that is a very big step against discrimination. In Cuba or in Latin America, it is not so easy. But even in Cuba, now, I heard about a festival of transvestites that was held. Some years ago it would be impossible to imagine such a thing. I believe that people grow and become more mature. That is happening in our society, and we can understand things better now than 15 years before." The way things were

You've been making films in Cuba for 40 years. How is it now compared to the past?

He took a sip from a cup of tea.

"When I look backward," he said, "I find that I have been very lucky because I had no money. The only money I earned is my official salary as a filmmaker. My salary, in Cuba, is the same as any other filmmaker. And it is in Cuban pesos, which is nothing. But I had the opportunity to make the films that I wanted to make during all my career, and making films is my life, so I've been lucky."

This film is making a lot of money, I said. Where will that money go? Will it go to you?

"To the distributor (Miramax). They bought it from the Havana Film Institute, so it will be part for the Film Institute and part for the distributor, and nothing for us."

He seemed to accept that prospect with equanimity. How do you feel, I asked, about the fact that if you were from some other country you could make $100,000 or half a million or whatever, to have in your pocket, and you cannot have that money because you are Cuban? Do you ever think about that, or do you agree with the theory that the money should go back to the Film Institute?

Gutierrez Alea smiled, and opened his arms. "Look, I am human. I know the value of money. But for me it is more important to have been making the films that I have made than to have money and not be able to make these films."

He smiled again. "But I would like also to have that money, of course."

There are a lot of American filmmakers, I said, who would rather have the money, and so they make the films that will pay it to them.

"But look," he said. "I am an old man already. And I know, for me, it would be very sad to look at myself in the mirror after all these years and say, I have all the money I wanted to have - but where's my life?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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