Director Lucy Mulloy spent several months in Havana, Cuba researching what would become her debut feature film, Una Noche. The British born filmmaker (her father is acclaimed animator Phil Mulloy) who went to school in both the UK and New York City, was drawn to the richness of Cuban culture and spent her time learning Spanish and martial arts while she wrote the screenplay for her film and worked with a cast of untrained actors. To say that her determination is nothing if not admirable would be an offense, but for all the effort she put into the film (hurricanes and tropical storms threatened the production, not to mention it’s a story about unsatisfied Cubans living under the communist regime), the final result is a rather lackluster film that pretends not to be politicizing, but works out like anti-communist propaganda out of the ’60s.
The story is simple. Raul (Dariel Arrechaga) is a young man who dreams of leaving Havana and moving to Miami where he will have every opportunity he’s been denied throughout his life. He’s trying hard to convince his best friend, and fellow co-worker at a restaurant, Elio (Javier Núñez Florián) to take the trip with him, but he remains unconvinced because he doesn’t want to leave his twin sister Lila (Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre) behind. Then one day, Elio is accused of assaulting a tourist — something we come to understand is the worst crime one can commit in Cuba — and he is forced to leave. The plot follows these three characters over the one fatidic day in which their lives are forever turned upside down.
Mulloy received unprecedented access to shooting in Havana and her camera captures the city’s vibrant spirit. Shot in 35mm, the film exudes a warm beauty that contrasts beautifully with the darkness of the story being told. But Una Noche has several major issues, most of which seem connected to its director’s own world views (Mulloy also wrote the screenplay). The first and most obvious is her antipathy towards the regime.
Elaborating on its pros and cons would be better left to a political discussion, but all art in a way is political and trying to deliver an apolitical film in one of the world’s most controversial countries is nonsensical. Mulloy judges the characters who want to stay behind and gives them condescending dialogues and plot twists, she looks down on anyone who doesn’t want to take an uncertain journey towards the United States, including Lila, whom she portrays as a woman too simple for words. As she is bullied in school by her older classmates, Lila becomes a cliché, you half expect her to turn into Carrie and kill everyone in her school. She prizes her virginity and despite the attention of men, she seems devoted to keeping her virtue and as such she’s the only character granted complete absolution in Mulloy’s screenplay.
Lila narrates the film letting us know that Mulloy found the compassion to grant her a future, something she denies most of the other characters. The narration is dull and pointless — it tries to be poetic but more often than not is laughable in its “complex simplicity” — and never contributes anything to the film that the actors aren’t already doing with their great work (the cast is truly a marvel to watch).
The second issues is the way in which Mulloy deals with sex, which in a way is related to her punishing characters with overflowing libidos. The film features fellatio, random nudity and one disturbing scene in which Raul’s hormones lead him to be “punished” as he fondles a woman in the street only to realize she has an erection.
The director turns Raul especially into a man who can’t control his passions. He is desired by Elio and sparks a strange feeling within Lila, his uncontrollable sexual hunger is what gets him in trouble in the first place. Una Noche is filled with scenes in which we are told that sex is bad and will most likely eat your life up; an older woman dying of AIDS is photographed morbidly and several characters stress the dangers of HIV as if we were watching an after school special. It’s no coincidence that Mulloy places two almost chaste characters as heroes of her story, she even ends up offering one of them as sacrifice to prove that virtue pleases her version of worth.
Una Noche remains an interesting experiment because we realize how little someone can change after living in a foreign environment. Mulloy’s work is admirable for its effort but not for its intention. She proves that she is nothing but a tourist who went to an exotic land, got the best out of it and then went back to her own creature comforts.
The film is presented in a bare bones DVD edition containing nothing other than a trailer as a bonus feature.