Film: Trading with the enemy: Depp and the paparazzi went one way; Alea went the other.

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The Independent Culture
Huge crowds gathered outside the New York Film Festival: screaming girls, policemen, paparazzi. Those waiting for Johnny Depp might have been surprised, but uninterested, to know that Tomas Guttierrez Alea, Cuba's last great director, was strolling in the opposite direction. As limos disgorged Tim Burton and Depp it was unlikely either would announce: 'Our role is to be united with the revolutionary process.' They might have agreed with Alea's other maxim, though: 'If it doesn't reach the people, it is of no use.'

Alea's latest film, Strawberry and Chocolate, had just been screened to a sell-out audience and received a standing ovation. Exactly 20 years ago, Alea was supposed to have been in New York for what would have been a similar reception - and to pick up a prize - for his film Memories of Underdevelopment. Despite format and pedigree - it's a black- and-white story of ideological responsibility made in Havana in the annus agitpropus that was 1968 - Memories had been playing to packed houses in America since May 1973. The New York Times had selected it as one of the 10 best movies of the previous year, and it was later voted one of the 150 most significant films of all time.

But the US State Department refused Alea a visa to attend the ceremony and denied him access to the dollars 2,000 award. Treasury officials even warned that anyone accepting it on his behalf would be violating the Trading with the Enemy Act. Hence the importance of this rare visit to American soil by Alea, and the excitement of seeing a new film by him.

Born in 1928 to a wealthy Catholic family, Alea studied law at Havana University and then moved in 1951, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to Rome's Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, heart of Italian neo-Realism. His first film back in Cuba, El Megano, was seized by Batista's secret police after its first screening in 1956 - ideal credentials for any Castroite director. As soon as the revolutionary government took over it established the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC). Alea was a founding member and is still deeply involved with every aspect of this famous institute.

Thus is Alea a part of the Cuban cultural establishment: yet those who have seen Memories would be forgiven for imagining his sympathetic portrait of a bourgeois slacker would have caused trouble for him back home. Those abroad cast him as a dissident, disallowed from working in Cuba, while in fact he continued to make films regularly.

Strawberry and Chocolate is in many ways a return to the themes of Memories. This time the protagonist is Diego, an overt homosexual aesthete who not only flaunts his sexuality but laughs at the regime. Diego picks up a student, a heterosexual Communist Leaguer, and introduces him to his world. Though the student resists all erotic blandishments, he cannot but be influenced by Diego's free thinking, and becomes his best friend.

It is fascinating to see what constitutes shocking blasphemy in today's Cuba. Diego puts a book by Mario Vargas Llosa on the table as if it were a bomb; he has copies of Time; he decorates his apartment with Catholic iconography. And in the end Diego is forced to flee Havana, the city he loves despite everything - a pessimistic reversal of Memories, where Sergio decides to stay despite everything he hates. If Strawberry and Chocolate lacks the structural and technical daring of Memories, it is still amazingly advanced for Cuban mores, in which homosexuality is the ultimate taboo, let alone drinking tea out of Sevres cups from Paris.

But, like Memories, this film was made with full backing from the ICAIC and has been running for months in Cuba, a big commercial success. In two cinemas in Havana impatient crowds broke the doors down. Many thought the film would be prohibited, so wanted to see it as soon as possible, but there has been no attempt to stop it. As Alea said: 'Within the state-run system there is a kind of space for criticism of the government. We work within the system and sometimes we can criticise it.'

More threatening to Alea is ill health. Strawberry and Chocolate was co-directed by Juan Carlos Tabio, a young, gay director, and as Alea's cancer became worse Tabio took over. Indeed Alea's arrival in New York was as fraught as his blocked mission in 1974. He stood to receive his ovation with his girlfriend Mirta Ibarra, who has a major role in the film. With a racking cough, Alea spoke of future projects, other multinational collaborations: but a hushed sense of swansong hung in the air.

'Strawberry and Chocolate' will open in London in November

(Photograph omitted)