Thursday, August 22, 2013

Una Noche: Cuba, Unvarnished

There are two Cuba’s: one for well-heeled Euro tourists, and one for Cubans.  When the two worlds mix, it often means trouble for the locals.  One Cuban teen understands that only too well.  Indeed, he has all kinds of reasons to flee the police state on a ramshackle raft and a hurried prayer.  Shot on location in Cuba, yet somehow still reflecting the country’s tragic real life circumstances, Lucy Mulloy’s Una Noche (trailer here) will transport audiences to the island dictatorship when it opens tomorrow in New York.

Raul is more or less a delinquent, but it is hard to judge him harshly once you know his backstory.  After years of servicing the tourist trade, his aging prostitute mother has contracted AIDS.  Despite all that great free healthcare, Raul is still forced to buy her medicine on the black market.  Always skirting the law, he has finally attracted serious police attention.  He and his mate Elio had planned to try their luck with the Florida Straights in due time, but Raul’s wanted status compels him to move up the timetable.

It will be hard for them both to leave Lila.  Elio has always had an unusually close and supportive relationship with his younger sister.  In contrast, Raul hardly knows her, but he has carried a torch for the Tae Kwon Do student from afar.  Nevertheless, they are prepared to depart by themselves, until the intuitive teen crashes their party.

Una Noche could be considered a case of life imitating art imitating life.  The narrative was inspired by the story of a harrowing attempted crossing that would be spoilery to relate in detail.  Subsequently, two of Mulloy’s three diamond-in-the-rough principles eventually defected to the America while en route to participate in Una Noche’s Tribeca press junket.  It is not hard to see why from Mulloy’s documentary-like street scenes.

It is not just the generally decrepit and unsanitary conditions of life outside the tourist enclaves that is so oppressive in Una Noche.  Mulloy captures the secret police at work, conveying all the fear and anxiety they generate.  When asked at a special screening why the Cuban government would allow permits for such an honest and unflattering production, she speculated they were perversely pleased with the tragic ending, seeing it as a tool to promote submission to state authority.  It is hard to argue with her line of reasoning, especially given the extent of her first hand experience.

Mulloy, a legitimately independent filmmaker, guides her earnest young cast through some first rate performances.  Perhaps Dariel Arechaga (the one who showed up on time at Tribeca) makes the strongest, edgiest impression as Raul, the nervy live wire.  Although it is a more tightly controlled performance, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre is not far behind him as the slow burning Lila.  Convincingly repressed, Javier Núñez Florián’s Elio is perfectly solid in the more subservient, less showy role of the trio.

Do not be put off by the “Spike Lee Presents” business.  Mulloy admirably holds up a mirror the reality of Cuba today.  Unfortunately, she risks undermining the film with some creepy sexual matter that might come across like overkill to some viewers, whereas others might consider it a strange attempt to fetishize the characters’ desperate poverty.  As a result, Una Noche can only be recommended for mature adults.  However, those who can handle an occasional bit of grossness should definitely check it out.  Intense and forthright, Una Noche opens tomorrow (8/23) in New York at the IFC Center.