‘Fresa y Chocolate’ is Berlin’s tasty treat

Francisco Leon may be the most popular man at the Berlin Film Festival this week.

As sales manager for the Cuban film institute ICAIC, Leon is in the delicious position of representing “Fresa y Chocolate” (Strawberry and Chocolate), the hottest film that still has distribution rights up for sale at the Berlin market.

The pic, about an unlikely friendship that develops between a straight, rather conformist university student and a flamboyantly anti-establishment gay, got a wildly enthusiastic reception at the fest’s competition screening late last week. Ever since, Leon has been deluged with inquiries from film buyers, and he’s already struck several deals, including sales to BIM in Italy, Ronin Films in Australia and Prooptiki in Greece.

The veteran Leon, who’s sold Cuban films for 18 years, is almost giddy from the experience. “I was prepared to have a good reception,” he said, “but this is the first time that I have in my hands such a big success … It is as exciting as a beautiful love.”

Tomas Gutierrez Alea, the film’s co-director with Juan Carlos Tabio, similarly has been swamped with requests for interviews in Berlin. Best known to American auds for his 1968 “Memories of Underdevelopment,” Alea is happy with this latest success, but is keeping it in perspective. Mostly he’s pleased to be reaching a larger international audience than he frequently does.

Several American distribs have expressed interest in the film, including Miramax, New Line and Sony Pictures Classics, but Leon says he doesn’t expect to close a deal with the Yanks until after the fest. One explanation for the delay is that U.S. buyers apparently have balked at the asking price, which is rumored to be as high as $ 1 million, a figure that Leon disputes.

For now, though, Leon will enjoy the attention of the buyers. “Usually I go to them,” he said with a laugh, “and now they come to me!”

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