The poignant Cuban drama Una Noche, now out on DVD, is narrated by Aris Mejias, who voices the thoughts of Lila (Anailían de la Rúa de la Torre). Lila is a teenager who describes the experiences leading up to, and after, her efforts to escape Havana for Miami. She travels with her twin brother, Elio (Javier Núñez Florián), who plans to travel the 90 miles via a raft with his friend Raul (Dariel Arrechaga). Raul, as it turns out, has an urgent need to leave Cuba.
The film, which premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, made headlines at the time because the two actors playing siblings “disappeared” upon arriving in America. Yet this real-life incident should not overshadow the strengths of writer/director Lucy Mulloy’s absorbing film. Una Noche makes palpable the heat and gritty conditions of Havana, as well as the various reasons that would compel teenagers like Lila, Elio, and Raul to escape.
In Lila’s early voice-over, she observes that her twin brother has “changed,” becoming more secretive since he met Raul. Queer viewers will probably guess that Elio is gay and has a crush on Raul, who is both charming and easy on the eyes. The two friends share a camaraderie that is more brotherly than lover-ly, and Una Noche does not overplay their bromance. Instead, Elio’s sexual conflict is discreetly addressed. His expression in a scene in which his friends taunt an effeminate boy on the street—calling him “faggot”—speaks volumes.
Raul, it is revealed, is aggressively straight. He often trades sex with women for favors, as when he uses his good looks to charm a young woman to give him the inner tubes he needs to cross to Miami. Another woman he flirts with provides him with a camera he trades to get the HIV medicine he needs for his mother (Maria Adelaida Mendez Bonet), a prostitute. This subplot is interesting, as it reveals the black market underground that Elio and Raul must negotiate to get the necessary drugs that are unavailable to the poor in Cuba.
Raul’s situation with his mother is part of what motivates his need to leave Havana. Catching his mother orally servicing a foreign client, a physical altercation causes the john to suffer an injury, for which Raul becomes legally culpable. In his efforts to stay one step ahead of the law, Raul enlists Elio (and by extension, Lila’s) assistance to sail to America.
That said, given his mother’s situation, it is a bit peculiar that the horny young Raul unknowingly comes on to a transgender prostitute, only to become incensed when he discovers “her” penis. But perhaps this scene is meant to demonstrate Raul’s homophobia, and foreshadow his reaction when Elio kisses him.
Una Nocha makes it clear how sexuality is presented in this country where, one character acknowledges, that all there is to do is sweat and have sex. Lila becomes determined to follow her brother to America when she discovers her father is having an affair. Elio, for his part, knows that being gay will be difficult in Cuba; besides, he wants to be alone with his attractive friend Raul.
How these dramas play out in the film’s final third, which takes place almost entirely on the water, may not be surprising, but the extended sequence is gripping. Mulloy makes viewers care about the film’s complex characters, who have big dreams, however unrealistic.
Despite its vivid sense of place, this fine film is flawed, in part, because the narration by Lila is unreliable. She could not know firsthand about many of the episodes involving Raul and/or Elio as she was not privy to them. In addition, there are also various symbols—from a bird in a cage to a bird in flight, or a fish that is deliberately dropped on a floor and kicked away—that comment, sometimes clumsily, on the characters’ situations.
But most of Una Noche feels authentic, such as a scene where Raul and Elio visit a witch doctor. Mulloy duly captures the oppression, both literally and figuratively, as it informs her characters’ lives. When the law pursues Raul, the tightening of the noose creates tension, as does a nifty chase sequence.
In the film’s pivotal role, Arrechaga gives an ingratiating performance. If his co-stars’ characters are underdeveloped, this may be a function of how the story plays out. Queer viewers may not be entirely satisfied by how Elio’s story unfolds, but Una Noche, which is based on actual events, remains moving nonetheless.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.