Thirty Years Since the Most Iconic Hug in Cuban Cinema
By El Toque
HAVANA TIMES – The epitome of Cuban film history will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its release this year, in 2023. Soon after the latest 95th Academy Awards, Fresa y chocolate takes on the eternity and freshness that makes a feature movie a national symbol. The movie premiered in 1993, directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio, based on the story “The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man“ by writer Senel Paz. It tells the story of a friendship between David (Vladimir Cruz), a young, idealistic and heterosexual Communist, and Diego (Jorge Perugorria), a cultured homosexual man who was critical of the regime in the 1970s.
Fresa y chocolate was the first fiction feature movie to openly deal with the subject of homophobia in Cuba; as well as other taboo subjects at the time: religion, art, freedom of speech and artistic expression. It’s also the only Cuban movie up until today to have been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Film merits of Fresa y Chocolate
Fresa y Chocolate stands out for its artistry, an intelligent and moving script that mesmerizes viewers. The filmmaking is precise and sensitive combining careful and colorful photography, an immersive soundtrack and dynamic editing. The movie mixes humor and irony with drama and intensity to depict a complex and contradictory reality, Cuba in the late ‘70s.
The directors really hit the mark in using the contrast between the two lead characters to show different ways of seeing the world. David represents a young revolutionary loyal to the system, but he’s naive and intolerant; Diego represents the man who rebels against repression, but is also seeking understanding and affection. The feature movie uses visual symbols to drive its messages home. For example, the apartment decorated with art pieces represents Diego’s culture; the balcony from which he observes the city symbolizes his distance.
The movie is acclaimed for a reason: it’s a masterpiece created with limited financial resources, but with a lot of creativity and ingenuity. Plus, it is has historical value, as it is the first of its kind to address sensitive issues during a tough time for Cuba as was the “Special Period” crisis -as the severe socio-economic crisis was baptized which hit the island in the early 1990s. Its nomination for the most coveted award in the world of film, in the Best Foreign Language Movie category, makes all the sense in the world. Along with the nomination for Best Original Song by Ernesto Lecuona in 1942 for the song “Always in my heart” for the movie of the same name, and the recent candidate for Best Actress Ana de Armas, for her lead role in Blonde, these are the three Cuban nominations for the Academy Awards up until today.
Taboo subjects in 1970s Cuba
Cuban viewers were shocked by the issues dealt with in the movie and it sparked a fierce debate. It was practically a mass phenomenon on the island; it was screened in most movie theaters across the country, including neighborhood movie theaters, filling every seat. It invited reflection, opened minds and even inspired rejection from some people. But the reality is that it reached a high percentage of Cuban citizens. Homosexuality was one of the most controversial issues on the island because the Cuban State had persecuted it for a long time under accusations of ideological digression, especially because it hurt the image the Revolution wanted to give to the world. Lots of LGBTIQ+ people were sent to forced labor camps, had to go into exile or hide their sexual orientation to save themselves from social stigma. The UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production) are mentioned in the movie, and singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes’ individual case as well. Anyone who didn’t agree with the mold of the New Man – whether it was because of their thinking, sexual orientation or for following a religion – was sent to these labor camps. While some viewers understood the movie was a way to whitewash the UMAP, the movie showed LGBTIQ+ people in a different light, different to the pathologization that the Cuban Government’s propaganda painted a lot of the time.
Fresa y Chocolate opened up a discussion about other taboo subjects, such as religion, art and freedom of speech. Religion had been marginalized by the State, considering it an isolation mechanism or mere superstition. However, in the movie, it is depicted as a source of consolation and hope.
On the other hand, the 1970s, when the plot of the movie unfolds, were marked by great censorship and persecution of artists. Ever since pretty much the very beginning of the revolutionary process, a group of artists had been rejected by the system, accused of elitism or subversion. The feature movie also paints a different picture about art: it isn’t depicted as a luxury or threat, but rather as a form of expression and beauty. The conflict comes through with the censorship of the exhibition of folkloric pieces and Diego’s response based on his unwavering principles.
Freedom of speech has always been a tricky issue in Cuba. Being persecuted or targeted if you spoke your mind, thought differently to the status quo as being “correct”, has been a problem of the Cuban Revolution and a violation of human rights from its inception. A problem that has marked and changed the way people behave. When Diego talks badly about the Government, he puts music on full blast to prevent any neighbors listening to his judgement. Talking badly about the Government could be understood in this movie as speaking the plain truth that differs to State policy.
International critique of the movie was mainly positive and praiseworthy: the movie was acclaimed by the specialized press and the general public at festivals and movie theaters where it was screened; it received countless awards and recognition in Latin America, as well as in Europe and the U.S. It was considered a masterpiece of Cuban and Latin American film, as well as an example of cinema committed to depicting social and political reality. It was also seen as a sign of opening and change in Cuba, as well as an invitation to a discussion and tolerance. The tolerance the movie proposes is perhaps one of its limitations. Today, we need to speak about diversity and recognizing rights.
However, it also received some negative feedback and was seen with some caution in certain circles. Some conservative or anti-Castro groups questioned the truthfulness or the intention of the movie, labeling it Communist or gay propaganda. Meanwhile, revolutionary groups considered it opportunistic and a betrayal, accusing it of being a concession to Imperialism or the market. Academic or artistic outlets questioned its originality or quality, assessing it as a traditional melodrama or a rip-off of other movies.
Despite this, the movie won many awards: many Coral Awards at the Havana Film Festival, a Goya Award for the Best Spanish-Language Foreign Film, and the Berlin International Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize.
International opinion was more positive than negative, on the whole. The majority of people agree that the movie contributed to spreading and giving prestige to Cuban and Latin American film worldwide.
The movie’s political message
The movie criticizes the Cuban State from a constructive standpoint, not an extremist one. It questions the dogmatism, authoritarianism, bureaucracy, sectarianism, machismo, fanaticism and the opportunism that define the Cuban State. It also complains about the lack of democracy, participation, and transparency on the island. It reveals the incompetence of the public sector, supposedly of solidarity, equality, and justice. It suggests a more human, diverse, critical and creative vision of what a Revolution should be.
Fresa y Chocolate isn’t an artistic work against the Cuban Revolution, but is rather in support of a better Cuban Revolution. The feature movie never rejects the revolutionary process’ achievements and values: it recognizes its mistakes and challenges. It seeks a dialogue and reconciliation between Cubans.
The final hug is the most beautiful and precise metaphor of the fusion of these two elements that compliment each other. The young Communist who is living in a black and white world where everything is defined by the official ideology, and the artist who lives in a harsher and more real world, where everything has its beauty. When they hug, these two characters create a much more complex combination, a symbol of diversity and respect.
Fresa y Chocolate deserves to be seen and analyzed for all of its cinematographic accomplishments, its social impact and for the tangible and stark reality it depicts, the complexity of Cuba back then. It’s a celebration of friendship and love between two very different and equal people. It’s the hug we all need, and many don’t want to give. Others don’t want to be hugged. The “Lezama dinner” has always been on the table for every dinner guest who is able to enjoy it.
You can watch the full movie with English subtitles here: https://youtu.be/g5PCk4eG9J4