Vladimir Cruz and Jorge Perugorría in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Strawberry and Chocolate (1994)

The extraordinary impact of the Cuban-Spanish-Mexican film Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) at the Berlin Film Festival aroused the interest of several international film companies. Among them was the U.S. company Miramax, which managed to close the deal two months later, at the Guadalajara Film Festival in Mexico (held March 28-April 3, 1994).

As expected, the trade agreement that permitted the film’s distribution and exhibition within the United State sparked strong reactions. A group of Cuban exiles regarded the gesture as offensive. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, for example, sent a public letter to Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, denouncing alleged violations of the embargo established by the U.S. government against the Cuban regime. However, this claim was quickly disqualified, as in 1989, the Office of Foreign Assets (FAC) of the US Treasury Department had amended the Cuban Assets Regulations to authorize financial transactions for the import and export of Cuban informational materials such as movies, books, records and newspapers [1].

Fausto Canel, who was one of the promoters of the letter, clarified what happened, recalling that “The Cubans living in California (Orestes Matacena, Camilo Vila, Rubén Rabasa, etc.) thought of writing a letter inviting the Academy´s voters to read about that argument between Nestor [Almendros] and Titón in the Village Voice and to watch [the 1984 documentary film] Improper Conduct in order to have the necessary information before voting.

”The main goal was to send it to movie star Andy García, inviting him to sign it and then help us to distribute it in Hollywood … But before doing this, I wanted it to be signed by ALL major Cuban exiles and Guillermo and Nat Chediak, who was then the director of the Miami Film Festival, refused to sign the letter.

“Guillermo sent me a letter in which he told me that he would not sign a collective letter. Instead, he preferred to write his own personal account because Titón was a great friend (see Heavenly Bodies) and that Nestor had helped Olga Andreu, Titón´s first wife, and his daughter Natalia too much to accept the slander and hypocrital attitude of Titón and the Cuban government towards the issue of homosexuals.

“Natalio Chediak, on the other hand, apologized by saying that with that huge amount of people crossing the Straits of Florida by boats in those days (in 1994), putting their lives at stake, and sometimes losing them in the attempt, he didn´t believe there was time to waste discussing a film.

“Given this situation, we decided to file the letter and not send it, as Kalatosov had said. But as Cubans are so talkative and gossipy, the famous letter became a ghost [“carta fantasma”] making the rounds in Europe (and the U.S. and Cuba) like a high-speed fun ride.”

In truth, Strawberry and Chocolate was not the first film produced by ICAIC to be distributed in the United States. Earlier, Sarasota Film Society director Richard Morris had screened Plaff! (Too Scared to Live) by Juan Carlos Tabío [co-director of Strawberry and Chocolate]. Although it was scheduled to screen in only five theaters, the commercial trajectoroy for Strawberry and Chocolate promised to be much stronger, not only because of the buzz from the Berlin festival, but because the movie told a story that sophisticated American viewers would find interesting.

And indeed, on February 8, 1995, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Strawberry and Chocolate had become one of the 50 biggest box-office hits of the moment. It was the first and only time to date that a Cuban film, co-financed by ICAIC, had reached 49 in that list. According to Notimex, “The top-grossing film that weekend, Legends of the Fall, earned $5.1 million, but its average revenue per theater was $2,508, which was only a third of what Strawberry and Chocolate took in.” [2] So when the nominations for the 67th Academy Awards were released on February 14 that year, there was little surprise that Strawberry and Chocolate was among the five films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, to be awarded on March 27 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The other films competing with Alea and Tabío’s were Burnt by the Sun (Russia), Before the Rain (Macedonia), Eat Drink Man Woman (Taiwan), and Farinelli: Il Castrato (Belgium).

Titón couldn´t get over his surprise over the acceptance of the film in the U.S. I could better understand the special award given to the film in January at the Sundance Film Festival, as this was a space that sought to legitimize independent alternatives to a cinema dominated by special effects and superhero stories. But in the prizes awarded by the “academic Academy” (as Cabrera Infante used to call it, with his corrosive humor), a cult of authorial sophistication and high-contrast visual calligraphy prevailed.

In fact, at the Golden Globes, presented at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles on January 21—and which is often a preview of what will happen at the Oscars—Strawberry and Chocolate was shut out. Voters had instead chosen Queen Margot (France), Red (Switzerland-Poland-France), To Live (Hong Kong), and Eat Drink Man Woman (Taiwan), which won the award. Farinelli, then, seemed to be the great rival of Strawberry and Chocolate in the competition for the Oscar.

”Our trip to Hollywood was an odyssey,” recalled Mirta Ibarra. “We were all elated. I remember Titón, in the room, helping Juan Carlos to put on his tuxedo tie and Juan Carlos doing the same with Titón. They looked like two guys dressing up for a party.” [3]

The photos of that moment, in fact, show a joy that can not be disputed. And there were reasons for that euphoria. Who could had told the young Titón—who had discovered Neorealism through the Oscars, when the Academy put it on the world map with awards for Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves—that near the end of his life he would be competing in the same category? What would Zavattini have said, seeing him in those days, waiting for the verdict? Or what would Nestor Almendros have commented, he who had won the Best Cinematography award for Days of Heaven in 1978, and again in 1982 for Sophie’s Choice? What would he have said now that Tabío and Titón were his rivals, thanks to a movie that seemed to extend the acidulous public polemic that he and Alea had exchanged at the time of Almendros’s 1984 film Improper Conduct?

Those who have visited Hollywood know that, more than a physical place, it is a slippery road where the memory of the dead, or of unreal beings, is more important than the complaints of flesh-and-blood locals. Walking down Sunset Boulevard, coming across the traces that these “celebrities” have left behind, immortalizing their names in the star-shaped scribbles embedded in the sidewalk, may plunge us into the most crippling illusions—as if life had stopped flowing, and as if that were a relief.

To Titón, however, the chance to win an Oscar, or at least to be among those competing for it, had a different connotation. That was the year in which American audiences became delirious with films such as Forrest GumpFour Weddings and a FuneralPulp FictionQuiz Show, and The Shawshank Redemption, as the list of the top films of the season can suggest. Winning the Oscar, then, was the opportunity to call attention to the human drama that had brought divisiveness among Cubans, but also made them face the Cuban and U.S. governments.

Titón thought his movie could contribute to a better understanding between the two countries. He had been informed that if he won, his speech could not exceed the time limit. He took a sheet of hotel letterhead stationery (with “The Beverly Hilton” across the top) and wrote in English what he would read if he won. He wrote:

“I apologize you for our poor English. I want to thank all those who believed in this project and helped it to come true: the Cuban Film Institute and especially its president, Alfredo Guevara; the Spanish and Mexican co-producers Telemadrid, SGAE, and Tabasco Imcine Film; Robert Redford; and Miramax Films.

”Our thanks also to members of the Academy for this honor. We come from another world, a very different island just ninety miles from the United States. This paradox, being so close and yet so far, is a human drama. We believe that no one knows the absolute truth. Our film is a call for acceptance and respect for diversity. Today we have come together to take a small step in that direction. Thank you very much.” [4]

However, shortly before arriving at the theater, they heard rumors that the Oscar would be given to another candidate. Maybe it was just rumors, because the winner´s identity is usually well preserved.

Outside the theater, the crowd waited to see their favorite actors. The ABC cameras (responsible for broadcasting the television show) never ceased to follow each of the nominees. Titón smiled all the time with Mirta Ibarra (in black), Juan Carlos Tabío, and Jorge Perugorría, all wearing tuxedos sent by the Academy. Weird tickles inside made them feel like fragments of the same invisible magnet. Close by, posing just as they were arriving, were performers Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Jessica Lange (Blue Sky), Paul Newman (Nobody’s Fool), Jodie Foster (Nell), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption), Miranda Richardson (Tom and Viv), John Travolta (Pulp Fiction), Winona Ryder (Little Women), Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George) and Susan Sarandon (The Client).

That night Titón wished good luck to his friend Robert Redford, who competed in the category of best director (Quiz Show), against Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway), Krzysztof Kieslowski (Red), and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction). He knew it would be a difficult time. There were not only rumors that another candidate had won but also the fact that at that point, the Latin American cinema barely had the antecedents of The Official Story (1987) as Oscar-winner in this category, and 14 nominees.

Mexico and Argentina had been the Latin American countries most likely to get the prize. For Mexico, the first break came in 1960 with Roberto Gavaldón’s Macario. In 1961, it was the turn for Animas Trujano by Ismael Rodríguez, in 1962 Tlayucán by Luis Alcoriza, and finally in 1975, Actas de Marusia by Miguel Littin. Meanwhile, Argentina had with The Truce (1974) by Sergio Renan, Camila (1984) by Maria Luisa Bemberg and the aforementioned The Official Story (1987) Luis Puenzo. To this was added the Brazilian film O Pagador de Promessas (The Payer of Promises, 1962) and Nicaragua´s Alsino and the Condor (1982). There was also the incident over A Place in the World (1992), which was entered as a Uruguayan film but found to be essentially an Argentinian production, which violated Academy rules.

That night, the famous television comedian David Letterman hosted the ceremony. However, he failed to liven things up. Whether it takes place in Las Vegas or Havana, an awards ceremony quickly becomes boring if a good presenter doesn’t keep things moving; it turns into a string of thank-yous. On that occasion, an honorary award was given to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, and for the first time pictures of actors who had died the previous year were shown, including Italian actress Giuletta Masina, Burt Lancaster, and Raul Julia.

As usual, there was silence for a few seconds when the nominees were announced in various categories, the presenter mysteriously saying “And the Oscar goes to…” while opening the envelope, maintaining the suspense. To Titón, Mirta Ibarra, Juan Carlos Tabío, and Jorge Perugorría, those seconds may have had an ineffable density, as if they had become more viscous. Perhaps they unintentionally held their breaths until they heard the title of the winning film: Burnt by the Sun, by veteran Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov.

It is impossible to describe what one feels in such circumstances. Only time puts everything in place, drained of the emotions that shape our reasoning to their whims. And as time passed, we knew that Strawberry and Chocolate had been beaten by an excellent film, as excellent as the Macedonian nominee Before the Rain.

It is true that that night, the movie lost the chance to win a prize that, after fifteen minutes of fame, people would have forgotten about. Instead, with Strawberry and Chocolate, Titón and Tabío had managed to illuminate some of these dark areas, on both sides of the Cuban drama, that insist on portraying intransigence as a virtue.

And back at the hotel, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was likely to feel, on a profound, personal level, like the most awarded man in the world. Or most at peace with himself, which is much the same thing.

[1] From the files of the Cuban Cinematheque.
[2] From the files of the Cuban Cinematheque.
[3] Mirtha Ibarra. His life in my memory. “Back on my feet”, p.390
[4] Film Archives of Cuba

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Juan Antonio García Borrero (born Camagüey, Cuba 1964) is a founding member of the Cuban Association for the Cinema Press, and a co-founder of the National Workshop for Cinema Criticism, Camagüey. He is a three-time winner of the National Literary Criticism Award for the books Guía crítica del cine cubano de ficción (Critical Guide to Cuban Fiction Film, 2000), La edad de la herejía (The Age of Heresy, 2002), and Otras maneras de pensar el cine cubano (Other Ways of Thinking about Cuban Cinema 2009). His other books include Rehenes de la sombra: Ensayos sobre el cine que no se ve (Hostages of the Shadow: Essays on Unseen Cuban Film, 2002), Cine cubano: nación, diáspora e identidad (Cuban Cinema: nation, diaspora and identity, 2006), Cine cubano de los sesenta: mito y realidad (Cuban Film of the Sixties: Myth and Reality, 2008), Intrusos en el paraíso cineastas extranjeros en el cine cubano de los sesenta (Intruders in Paradise: Foreign Filmmakers in Cuban Cinema of the Sixties, 2009), and Bloguerías (2009). In 2007, he established the Internet blog Cine Cubano, la pupila insomne (Cuban Cinema, The Insomniac Eye).