Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Santería and Resistance in Tomás Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío's Strawberry and Chocolate and in Fernando Pérez's Life Is to Whistle

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Santería and Resistance in Tomás Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío's Strawberry and Chocolate and in Fernando Pérez's Life Is to Whistle

Article excerpt

Introduction

On July 20, 2015, the United States and Cuba opened embassies in one another's countries for the first time in 54 years. Many events had led to these nations' remarkable shift in policy, but perhaps none were as interesting as the catalyzing role that Pope Francis played in the negotiations. Not only did he advocate a normalization of relations between the countries, but he invited delegations from both countries to the Vatican in personal letters to US president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro.1 The idea that a Pope could hold such sway with the Castros' Cuba is especially surprising given that the island's Revolutionary government had previously expelled clerics and spied on believers due to the supposed threats that they posed.2 Much of the tension between the Castros and the Church had ebbed-at least symbolically-when Pope John Paul II visited the island in January 1998. Shortly after the visit, Fidel Castro amended the constitution to affirm that the state was no longer Marxist-which denoted a dogmatic atheism-but secular.3 Artists and intellectuals had long discussed religious freedom through various venues, including film; in many ways, these people laid the groundwork for the government's evolving approach to religion.4 Cuban directors engaged both elites and the public, showing that religious expression was not a threat to the island, but a normal aspect of many people's lives. Rather than oppose people's religious expression, they charged that the state should encourage it. This article discusses two very different films: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío's Strawberry and Chocolate (1993)5 and Fernando Pérez's Life is to Whistle (1998).6 The former came out five years before Pope John Paul II's first visit, while the latter hit theaters a few months after. Thus these movies represent two distinct periods for religious liberty on the island despite the proximity of their release dates. Far from viewing religious belief as a political threat to Cuban socialism, these directors view it as an inclusive act that allows people who do not fit Revolutionary paradigms to live an authentic life.

None of the religious characters of these films conform to national ideals, and their resulting marginalization subverts statist dogmas. Rather than affirm a binary that pits "revolutionary" atheists against "anti-communist" peoples of faith, these movies assert a reality in which people's private lives do not determine their politics. Gutiérrez Alea and Tabío underscore this fact in Strawberry and Chocolate when the homosexual protagonist Diego tells his friend, David, who is an activist for the Communist League, that while he is homosexual, religious, and intellectual, he is also a Revolutionary. This confuses David, who never thought such identities were compatible. Given that this film came out five years before the pope's visit to the island, it is apparent that the nation's intellectuals and artists were questioning post-revolutionary postures toward religion long before Castro amended the constitution. By framing a person's faith as a personal expression, films like Strawberry and Chocolate invalidated the persisting assumptions that justified the oppression of believers.

In both of the films that I discuss below, people's faith liberates them from the oppressive doctrines of the state, especially those of the "new man" that Ernesto "Che" Guevara proclaimed in 1965,7 which dictated the appropriate behavior for a "true" Cuban revolutionary. Interestingly, Guevara coined this term by appropriating the vocabulary of the apostle Paul, who, in his epistle to the Ephesians states, "put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness."8 For Paul, becoming a "new man" entails greater knowledge about human nature, which in turn carries theological connotations because all people are children of God. Something similar occurs within Guevara's thought; however, the revolutionary does not attribute success to God's will, but to the equality that will supposedly result from a "pure" socialism. …

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