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EARNEST young David (Vladimir Cruz) may be a bit naive, but he knows a homosexual when he sees one. He can tell Diego (Jorge Perugorria) is trouble from the minute the man orders strawberry ice cream instead of the more suitably masculine chocolate.

Nonetheless, David soon ends up in Diego's apartment, a veritable shrine to Maria Callas, the Virgin Mary and some guy named Oscar Wilde. The dedicated member of Castro's Communist League finds himself deep in the lair of a true enemy of the people. "The best is not to be shocked by anything, and to sip from every cup," Diego purrs.

Such is the premise of "Strawberry and Chocolate," Cuba's nominee for Best Foreign Film in the Academy Awards (it didn't win). The movie arrives in the United States (with the help of Robert Redford) as part of a growing wave of gay-theme films from countries notorious for their intolerant treatment of homosexuals.

Taken collectively, these movies from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and China (of which the best-known is "Farewell, My Concubine") can shed light on the lives of gay people in communist regimes, which is certainly a legitimate reason to see them. But outside asociological context, "Strawberry and Chocolate" may strike American audiences as a giant step backward.

Director Tomas Gutierrez Alea, working from a short story by Senel Paz, has created an almost painfully predictable buddy film about a stridently political straight guy and a gay aesthete which may remind many viewers of "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

Maybe it's just me, but do we really need another film suggesting that the real value of gay men is their ability to teach their heterosexual comrades how to decorate their apartments, appreciate classical music and meet the right woman? (Fans of Tom Hanks' misty-eyed opera lesson in "Philadelphia" will be delighted to find it replayed here at least three times.) Just once, I'd like to see a scene in which a straight man tries to tear his gay pal away from a Bills game for a trip to the Albright-Knox.

A big part of the problem here is Perugorria's portrayal of Diego as a limp-wristed, flaming queen -- exactly the kind of stereotype gays in the United States have fought for two decades to transcend. Compounding the frustration is the fact that we never see Diego in terms of a larger community, aside from one similarly artsy friend (an omission that may well reflect the country's systematic repression of gay organizations and meeting places). Of course, in keeping with standard practice in this sort of film, he never gets as much as a kiss from anyone, either.

David, too, is drawn with broad strokes: He's such an innocent (sexually as well as intellectually) that he comes across almost as an idiot. The women in the story (one who breaks David's heart, and a government-issue zany neighbor) tend to disappear from it for long periods of time when they don't serve the plot. Dialogue, at least as conveyed in translated subtitles, sometimes reads like the libretto of one of those socialist realist plays commissioned to salute the arrival of a new tractor.

Despite these all-too-apparent faults, "Strawberry and Chocolate" is provocative for two important reasons. First, it offers a very rare glimpse into a culture clearly unlike our own. But the underlying similarities are even more revealing.

While it doesn't break any new ground in terms of style or story, the film is surprisingly articulate about the role of forbidden desires and foreign influences (which here include whiskey and Catholic imagery as well as poetry and sexual freedom) in a repressive regime. Significantly, the most heated male-male body contact in the film occurs between two presumably heterosexual characters, as they discuss the need to silence gay subversives. Given recent widespread attacks on allegedly "deviant" opinions and art in our own country, Alea's view from the trenches is worth a look.

Strawberry and Chocolate
Rating: *** 1/2
Pioneering Cuban film about the relationship between a heterosexual man and his gay friend.
Rated R, opens today in the Amherst Theater.

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