Havana, like most Cuban cities, swelters from more than just the tropic heat. Its buildings, except for the few well preserved landmarks you’ll find on the three or four blocks tourists rarely travel beyond, suggest dreams obliterated by nuclear bombs. The streets are cluttered with people, a huckster on every corner, a spy in every window. Women saunter to black markets when their families have exhausted their allotted food rations. Men will sing as they walk, as if to the ghosts of gringos they entertained in the clubs of yesteryear. Around them, tourists shop for more than cigars and Che memorabilia. Fear and resentment hangs in the air, and the people, like flies trapped in amber, constantly reach out for help, some even for a way out.
Lucy Mulloy is a tourist, but she understands Havana’s complex sociopolitical situation better than most. Granted unprecedented and unbelievable access to shoot in the city, the New York filmmaker uses a small army of nonprofessional actors, the very pawns of Fidel Castro’s revolution, to tell the story of three disillusioned teenagers who make the fateful choice of leaving their homeland behind, to make the treacherous 90-mile journey from Havana to Miami with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a sack full of stolen food. Just as the film realistically reveals the largest city in the Caribbean as a maze of history and discontent, it conveys the struggle of its characters to facilitate their escape from their island prison as a ramshackle puzzle desperately pieced together from a hodgepodge of ill-fitting pieces, some stolen, others acquired through bartering.
Mulloy’s fierce attention to a very specific logistical nightmare illuminates the folly of the Cuban revolution. The attempts by Elio (Javier Núñez Florián) and his friend Raul (Dariel Arrechaga) to piece together their getaway raft is at once sad and comic, which accurately describes everyday life in Cuba. This is nicely articulated in a particularly fraught scene where Elio trades his bike for a motor that he doesn’t even test, partly out of carelessness, but also because time is no longer on his side. When he makes the decision to steal food from work, in a scene that subtly reveals just how much the Cuban government polices its people, it’s understood that Elio—like Raul, who’s now on the run for inadvertently injuring a tourist his prostitute mother brings back to their decrepit house—has reached a point of no return.
Una Noche shines a light on the balseros phenomenon without miring itself in politics, such as discussions of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy. Given such savviness on Mulloy’s part, it’s unfortunate that this rather novel film is compromised by some very novice moves, most egregiously the breathy, dramatic narration by Aris Mejias from the point of view of Elio’s twin sister, Lila (Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre). Unlike the voice that all-knowingly guides us through I Am Cuba, Una Noche’s narration is scarcely poetic and rarely ties together the plights of the film’s three characters, mostly articulating matters that could easily have been related visually and seeming to exist mostly to beef up Lila’s non-story. Whereas Elio and Raul’s unique reasons for wanting to leave Cuba are strongly felt, or in Elio’s cast strongly hinted at, Lila’s never are; she’s just a girl who catches her father cheating and doesn’t want to be separated from her brother.
Worse, and this is in spite of her considerate depiction of the flashes of joy people in Cuba experience in spite of their grueling everyday circumstances, is Mulloy’s lurid depiction of carnality. Beyond married men sleeping with other women and the anti-gay joshing that even targets ladies-man Raul is how sex is treated as a narrative device: for a piece of cake and a digital camera, Raul allows an older woman to suck on his face; he capitalizes on his girlfriend’s father having sex in order to steal the man’s GPS; and though he’s on the run from police, he takes a timeout to aggressively mack on a honey who’s only too happy to punk him by letting him feel her dick. Even at a hospital, where Emilio goes on the sly to get AIDS medicine for Raul’s mother and supplies for their trip, a nurse sexes the boy up as a ruse when a guard walks in on them.
To this critic who once travelled the same route Elio, Raul, and Lila take toward freedom, albeit under more controlled circumstances, Una Noche tugged at my heartstrings, but the film’s almost phantasmagoric fixation on sex can feel crass and dehumanizing. It isn’t enough that Elio is running because he’s in the closet, that Raul’s decision to leave was sealed by a moment of sexual transaction that led to a tourist being hurt, and that Lila’s affection for her brother borders on the incestuous—even their farewell and journey across the waters between Havana and Miami is colored by sex: Before the trio takes off, a white, rather sickly looking teen cuts off a fish’s teeth so he can use the animal as a masturbation aide while peering at Lila’s ass, and once at sea, Raul spends more time hitting on Lila than he does rowing. To Mulloy’s credit, though, she doesn’t cheaply ratchet up the tension of their journey (at least not to the extent to which she aestheticizes, in a manner reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the squalor of Raul’s living situation), and through a pair of ballsy and poignant confessionals—one a kiss, the other a sort of proposal—she almost justifies her obsession with her characters’ sex lives, suggesting that Cubans, in both matters of sex and politics, are united as brothers.