Watching his funny and likeable Havana-set comedy is like chancing upon some undiscovered early gem by Godard or Woody Allen, and yet it has a worldliness and drollery that is all its own. At the time, Strawberry and Chocolate was notable for being the first Cuban film with an overtly gay character, but the ideas it raises about sexualities both gay and straight seem to me just as relevant and fresh right now.
Vladimir Cruz plays David, an idealistic young virgin-student who in the opening sequence is shown taking his girlfriend Vivian (Marilyn Sontana) to a cheap "love hotel", only to be overwhelmed with shame at his crude objectives – or is it that there is something in the act itself which repels him? Anyway, it is a deeply uncomfortable liaison whose calamitous sequel we see ironically revealed on the wedding day for which David had shrilly promised he would be saving himself.
In his turbulent mental state, David chances across Diego, tremendously played by Jorge Perugorría. He's a witty and sympathetic gay man who lures the confused David back to his apartment. At the instigation of a Party ideologue at David's communist student hostel, David attempts to spy on Diego and entrap him into political heresy: but David winds up instead entranced by Diego's free-thinking, free-loving brilliance: this is a man who thinks what he likes and reads what he pleases. Daringly, Diego even appears to have an intense religious faith, coloured by a melodramatic campness, but real enough. Yet Diego's seduction fails: or rather it morphs into something else: David falls in love with Diego's neighbour Nancy, played by Mirta Ibarra.
Alea's movies have a loose, free-wheeling swing to them, an improvised "jazz solo" feel that looks easy but really isn't. There are very few directors who can contrive long scenes in which nothing happens but talk. And conversation is much of what this film is about: idealistic, studenty conversation but intelligent and high-minded conversation nonetheless: about books, art, music, everything. (One caveat: David appears to believe that Che Guevara was Cuban, and Diego does not contradict him; perhaps he is too infatuated to risk pointing out that Guevara was Argentinian.)
This is the kind of material that modern films from Britain and the US would never dream of giving us, unless heavily freighted with irony. Diego and David's friendship deepens through the film and Alea, without ever appearing to try, artlessly pulls off the trick yearned for by every screenplay seminar-student: the creation of "sympathetic" characters who we really care about. The film is a thoughtful, sensual pleasure.
See 'Strawberry & Chocolate' for yourself on the Cuba50 film tour