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In Dublin, in Tucson, and now in Havana, a flurry of recent films announces, gays can be acceptable, even likable—as long as they don’t actually have sex. Like the Albert Finney and Whoopi Goldberg characters in, respectively, A Man of No Importance and Boys on the Side, the gay lead in Strawberry and Chocolate is smart, lively, and artistic. And, like them, the person with whom he’s hopelessly in love is hopelessly straight.
Diego (Jorge Perrugoria) meets David (Vladimir Cruz) at an outdoor café. David, he later explains, knew instantly that Diego was gay, because he ordered strawberry ice cream instead of the more manly chocolate. (How easy such judgments are in a country without Baskin-Robbins.) David agrees to go home with Diego nonetheless, and the two become friends.
David, an earnest young virgin, has nothing but the revolution and his university studies since his girlfriend decided to marry a man with better career prospects; the somewhat older Diego is worldly and refined, and has access to a wide array of smuggled and otherwise questionable goods, from Peruvian novels to American scotch, “the whiskey of the enemy.” Though at first David reports on Diego’s political errors to his equally revolution-struck roommate Miguel (Francisco Gatorno), he soon becomes protective of his flamboyant new pal.
David’s fledgling friendship with Diego brings much new drama to his life. He joins in taking responsibility for Nancy (Mirta Ibarra), Diego’s sometimes vivacious, sometimes suicidal middle-aged neighbor. He’s also drawn into Diego’s ideologically risky battle to mount a show of sculptures that combine Christian and Communist imagery in a manner unlikely to please the cultural authorities. In exchange, David gets Diego’s services as a literary and lifestyle mentor—and just might get to sleep with Nancy.
Of course, in theory David might sleep with Diego instead; that’s certainly the plot’s central tease. But directors Tomas Gutierrez Alea (Memories of Underdevelopment, Death of a Bureaucrat) and Juan Carlos Tabio and scripter Senel Paz are so cautious that this possibility never seems real. Strawberry‘s moral is that the campily stereotypical Diego is OK, but you sense that the filmmakers would think less of David if he ever actually yielded to Diego’s advances.
It’s presumably an advertisement of enlightenment that Strawberry, a Cuban-Mexican-Spanish co-production, could be shown in Cuba. The good-natured, mildly eccentric Diego is no threat to anybody’s revolution, though. He talks to his refrigerator, takes care of his neighbor, pursues a guy he can never have, and worships everything Cuban, from the Havana skyline to various writers and composers little-known outside their native land. If a copy of Time magazine is, as Miguel puts it, “pure poison,” Diego’s subversions are barely potent enough to give Castro a stomachache.
No one is straight in Boys Life—at least no one who matters. The three wish-fulfillment shorts in this anthology film do include some token heterosexuals—parents, female friends, a boss, and a librarian—but virtually all the attractive young men are ready and willing to fall into each others’ arms. Considering that the three lead characters are adolescent virgins agonizing over how to approach potential lovers, this makes the proceedings rather anticlimactic.
Though these films have been shown individually at gay film fests (where I previously saw one of them, The Disco Years), they fit together as if designed to do so. Each takes a young man discovering his sexuality and adds an attractive possible partner and one slice of archetypical gay milieu. In writer/director Brian Sloan’s Pool Days, a high-school kid (Joshua Weinstein) takes a summer job at a Bethesda health club and is intrigued by reports of unauthorized activities in the steam room. In writer/director Raoul O’Connell’s A Friend of Dorothy, a New York University transfer student (O’Connell) falls for his roommate and finds community in a record store’s Barbra Streisand section. And in director Robert Lee King’s The Disco Years, the least subtle of the three, a high-schooler (Matt Nolan) has a brief fling with a blond tennis-team god, watches a gay teacher be victimized, and then seeks solace at a gay disco. (Fortunately, his frighteningly needy single mom had insisted that they take disco dancing lessons together.)
There are small differences between the three directors’ strategies. Sloan uses short vignettes, whose seemingly casual accumulation gives Days the least contrived feel; King relies on narration and ’70s signifiers, from disco to Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), to put his character’s travails in a broader context. All three have written some fairly clumsy dialogue, though, and their boy-meets-boy scenarios are blandly idealized. These may be low-budget noncommercial efforts, but they seem to aspire to the glossy insubstantiality of mainstream Hollywood.