'Una Noche' Will Show You the Real Cuba

I first saw Lucy Mulloy’s Una Noche at the Tribeca Film Festival, attracted by the fact that the film takes place in my birthplace of Havana, Cuba. I was hesitant, but intrigued enough to try it. I arrived with a group of friends, all of Cuban descent but varying in age, relationship to the island, and political inclinations — a contemporary Cuban melting pot. We were excited to see each other, talkative and buoyant on a typical New York City evening.

Later, when the theater slowly emerged from the shadows and the film credits gave way to the crew standing on stage, we sat silently, neither peering at nor speaking to each other. All of us were flushed from crying.

Una Noche officially opened in New York and Miami theaters last week and is now available on iTunes, so it seemed worthy to revisit my experience that evening with more distance.

In the simplest of synopses, the film is based on the true account of three Cuban teenagers who, as a result of various intertwining circumstances, decide to flee on a makeshift raft to Miami, as hundreds of thousands have done before them. On the surface, the backdrop is a sadly romantic, decaying tourist haven — Havana — but the soft drama of its torn facades, ornate yet broken tiles, and balconies crowded with drying linen is sliced open with scenes of human ingenuity, indignity, struggle, kindness, and daydreaming.

Beyond this, Una Noche is about the complicated decisions that life unjustly demands of children, as well as the shadows that surround everything in a country like Cuba. The gray areas that lurk behind every comment and decision, every roundabout way of surviving and staying afloat in a system rigged to fail. Cuba is the true, fourth protagonist of this movie, that often flows more like a documentary.

Director Lucy Mulloy weaves nuance and interdependence from the quotidian in ways that anyone who has been to Cuba recently will recognize, and those who have not will find painful but honest. The voices and breaths of each character emerge on their own merit, spun into a dialogue that is as contemporary as Cuban idioms and slang can possibly get.

It was safe to say that the Tribeca auditorium felt deeply touched that evening, but I remain as riveted by its on-screen plot as by the off-screen stories of its Cuban crew, the director’s commitment to its narrative, the unwillingness of the Cuban government to screen it, and Spike Lee’s interest in the film.

When it premiered in Tribeca, it garnered press in part because two of its three ordinary-teens-turned-actors had defected in Miami. A year later, one hopes the film will emerge as equal parts a coming of age story and a mirror for Cubans on the island, who can suddenly see their reality — alternatively brutal or comic, outlandish or ordinary, amoral or dignified — traced on a screen with honesty and respect. The movie has had success at festivals abroad, but Mulloy’s loudspeaker is pointed squarely at Havana.