It was late in the afternoon and Tomas Gutierrez Alea, perhaps Cuba's most famous film director, was balking at the prospect of yet another interview. "But we must have time to eat!" he snapped at the publicist helping to promote his new film, "Strawberry and Chocolate," which opens today.
The actress Mirta Ibarra, his robustly sensual wife and one of the stars of the movie, popped her head into the bedroom of the midtown Manhattan hotel. The couple was in town last fall for the film's American premiere at the New York Film Festival, and the pace had been hectic, especially for a 66-year-old man who has been ill for some time. After a compromise of sorts was struck, the director, once the cinematic chronicler of the Cuban Revolution, gingerly settled into an easy chair, a knobby hand occasionally patting his crown of gray hair.
"I'm very tired," Alea said wearily in thickly accented English. "And the questions they ask me! There is a great incomprehension of Cuba from here. You have a very simplistic image of our country."
"Strawberry and Chocolate," which Alea co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabio, may change that. Contradicting most Americans' perception of Cuba as a gray ideological prison is this exuberant, lighthearted story of the unlikely friendship between an idealistic Marxist student and the flamboyant gay man who tries to seduce him. Diego (Jorge Perugorria) meets David (Vladimir Cruz) in a Havana ice cream parlor, and wears down the handsome youth with a barrage of food, flattery, opera records and literature.
David is at first repulsed and agrees when asked by a fellow party member to entrap Diego for helping to organize a potentially subversive sculptural exhibition. But the witty intellectual, Diego, wins him over, partly with the help of his volatile neighbor, Nancy (Ibarra), against the backdrop of Havana, shown in all its decaying splendor.
Cuba has long been criticized by human-rights organizations for its harsh repressive measures against homosexuals, so "Strawberry and Chocolate," with its sympathetic gay lead character, has been treated as something of an international cause celebre .
The film drew large crowds in Havana at its world premiere as part of the New Latin American Film Festival in December, 1993. After winning more kudos at the Berlin and Toronto film festivals, the comedy was picked up for U.S. distribution by Miramax.
The American distributor promptly enlisted as a sponsor Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute has championed many Latin American film projects, including screenwriting workshops in Cuba and Mexico. These were conducted under the tutelage of Alea, who established his international reputation in 1968 with the film "Memories of Underdevelopment" and solidified it with "The Last Supper" (1977) and "The Survivors" (1978).
Some critics, mainly gay activists and anti-Castroites, have charged that the film is a cynical ploy to win sympathy for the beleaguered communist island, not to mention an opportunity to earn badly needed dollars. In minor protests accompanying the film's release, flyers have accused the Cuban government of using this film to cover up their sins against gays: "re-education" labor camps, the 1979 Mariel exodus that labeled them "human scum" and the roundly condemned quarantine of HIV-positive individuals the government now says is no longer policy.
"They say this is propaganda for the regime," said Alea with a shrug. "They say this was a command that I received, to make a film to present for the government a more liberal face to the world. What I can tell you is that I have made this film, as I have made all my films, in exactly the manner in which I have wanted to make it."
These include films he considers devoid of political content, such as his lyrical "Letters from the Park," based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story.
"Strawberry and Chocolate" is based on the 1990 short story by Cuban writer Senel Paz, "The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man." As soon as Alea read it, he was captivated. He asked the writer to adapt his story into a screenplay, then took the project to Alfredo Guevara, the director of the Cuban Film Institute, who gave the go-ahead. The fact that the story had won a prestigious French literary prize provided some cover for those who backed its production. But the movie still ran the risk of being banned.
"I'm not telling you that there is not censorship," said Alea. "The government can do anything they want. I'm sure it made many people very uncomfortable. But I think most of them realized that this was not a film about homosexuality but about intolerance and incomprehension of those who are different."
Asked if Castro has seen the movie, Alea laughed. It's a question the director has heard many times. "(Castro) saw the film weeks after it was shown at the (Havana) film festival. But I don't know what he thought of it. Nobody wanted to tell me. And I don't ask."
Alea is quite conversant with tales of Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries. The director documented Castro's extraordinary victory over the Batista regime in his 1961 film, "Stories From the Revolution." It established Alea as one of the leaders of Cuba's then fledgling film industry, a dream that he had entertained since his boyhood spent in the bourgeois comfort of a Havana family of lawyers and doctors.
Alea received a law degree from the University of Havana but steeped himself in movies, attending film school in Rome in the early '50s, where he began a lifelong romance with the neo-realist filmmakers. When he returned to Havana, Alea was a primary player in the elite artistic circles and a strong supporter of the revolution, having had one of his early films--a documentary on the deplorable conditions of the charcoal workers--seized by the Batista dictatorship.
A founding member of the Cuban Institute of Art and Film Industry and a pivotal force in establishing the cultural life of the new Castro regime, Alea has been hit with charges that he is a Cuban Faust who sold himself for power and gain. The director, who lives modestly with his wife in the chic suburb of Miramar on the highest professional salary allowed ($5 a month), countered: "That is nonsense. I have been making films critical of the regime since 'Death of a Bureaucrat' and 'Memories of Underdevelopment.' "
Indeed, the National Society of Critics, in honoring Alea in 1974, issued a citation praising "Memories" as " . . . the very personal and very courageous confrontation of the artist's doubts and ambivalences regarding the Cuban Revolution."
Alea believes that film can be a useful critique and views his "Strawberry and Chocolate" as just the latest salvo against what he freely paints in his movies as a calcified and deadening system that has led his country to a daunting crisis of confidence.
Alea, like many of his compatriots, has grown disillusioned with the aging dictator. "Is it time for him to leave?" he mused as his wife came to whisk him off for a bite to eat. "Well, to leave or to change radically, it's time. But it may be too late."