“Una Noche”: In Lucy Mulloy’s Film Art and Life Converge / Yoani Sanchez #Cuba

Poster for the film "Una Noche"
Poster for the film “Una Noche”

The Infinite Circle

By Yoani Sánchez

Anyone who has ever taken a strip of paper, twisted it, and then glued the ends together, knows they have created a unique figure. It’s called a Mobius strip in honor of one of the German mathematicians who discovered it.

But beyond an amusement or a tribute to the sciences, the object we have in our hands will challenge our comprehension of form and space. If we slide a fingertip along one of the sides of the paper we see that there is no inside or outside, the strip has only one side. Running our finger over it again and again brings us to the same place, we invariably come to the beginning of an identical path.

The film Una Noche — One Night — by the British director Lucy Mulloy, has come to be like that strange figure of geometry. It began inspired by a true story, later jumped to the big screen, and ended up getting away from its director and provoking a reality similar to the original.

The flesh-and-blood youngsters whose experiences are told in the film, are played in turn by two novice actors who ended up realizing, in real life, the dream of characters. The point of departure – again and again – of that peculiar Mobius Strip has been emigration.

The desire to escape from Cuba, though frustrated for so many people, became a concrete reality for those two actors. When Anailín de la Rua and Javier Nuñuz decided not to travel to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, but rather to stay in Miami and take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act, they glued together that day the ends of two very different dimensions: fiction and reality. Thus converting them into a single continuous side of their own lives.

Despite the absence of some of its cast, Una Noche left the Tribeca Film Festival with three awards. Best film by a New Director, Best Actor — shared by the two male leads — and also the award for Best Cinematography. The latter was richly deserved given the true picture that is achieved with the interiors and exteriors framing the narrative.

The harshness and misery in a Havana with very little resemblance to the city depicted in tourist ads, which invariably show the Capitol building, the beautiful and tall Focsa Building, or the Plaza of the Revolution. Instead, in the film the visual background is of architectural decadence and urban slums, long forgotten by the restoration processes undertaken along the paths of our foreign visitors.

The locations were chosen to form an inseparable part of the portentousness of the story. The setting of the stage is essential, including some minor characters overwhelmed by the force of their surroundings. Among them is a man who sells illegal medications, hiding his precious pharmaceutical treasures in a fake bed, and a transvestite who fusses with his clothes while waiting in one of those dusty and forgotten Havana doorways. There is also the woman sick with AIDS who, like her house, is dying. Nothing is purposefully exaggerated, no wall is stripped of paint, no fake dirt is put in front of the camera. The decrepitude is authentic, touching and painful.

Thus the physical environment accentuates the oppressive atmosphere that leads the protagonists to escape. At one point you, the viewer, also want to climb aboard a rustic raft and launch yourself into the sea, just to be able to look away from so much physical and moral impoverishment. There is no way to remain impassive in your theater seat, because the story told in Una Noche is like those Greek tragedies which, from the opening scenes, offer presentiments of the coming drama. The main characters are drawn toward a wretched misfortune, against which they can do almost nothing. Trapped in their circumstances, pushed onward by them.

Una Noche, from its first moment, is a movie without guile, centered particularly on one generation. The same generation that repeated every morning at their school assemblies, “Pioneers for Communism! We will be like Che!” and yet who are, today, desperately seeking something to believe in. It is precisely these youngsters under thirty who have ended up living in an ethically deteriorated Cuba, a Cuba where the most strongly shared ideal is emigration.

The film differentiates itself, in this way, from most of the films shot by foreigners on the island. It does not seek out the laughter, or linger on the stereotypes of rum, salsa, and beautiful brown women. All this, in one way or another, is rolled into the story, but with a dramatic and stifling weight, rather than as an enjoyable mechanism of disengagement. Although it’s worth pointing out that not even this film has managed to avoid all the stereotypes. For example, a moment of improvised music in the street, with a group of neighbors dancing, calls forth an image too close to the vision foreigners have of the Island.

Love is treated as an escape, like a raft to cling to at sea. Fleeting intercourse, tracing the forms of breasts or penises lying hidden under clothing, and sexual innuendo as an inseparable part of the urban language. A disincarnated way to represent the national lust. Far from that mix of power and romance which so often has been called on to try to encompass the passion of Cubans. Or the sweet and affectionate wink that almost passes for a kiss, nearly impossible given the circumstances within which the characters move.

The lives of several families are interwoven in their youngest members, in their offspring. Beings constantly moving between legality and illegality. The excellent performance of Dariel Arrechada in the role of Raul, confirms that the Cuban school of acting continues to give the world innumerable talents. Also appreciated is the use of virtually unknown faces, as in national productions the same names are excessively repeated.

The music selection, as well, shuns the commonplace. Viewers will find themselves privileged in the soundtrack, with songs ranging from hip hop and reggaeton and even the more traditional genres. The most modern rhythms serve to introduce many of the scenes.

The British director has said that her intention was not to send a political message, but “to tell a story about emotions.” But in Cuba to narrate reality, to portray real life today, is worse than shouting protest slogans or composing hundreds of opposition documents.

So Una Noche is a sharp blow to illusion, to these vestiges of a paradise located in the Caribbean that still remain in the minds of many who do not live here. But it is also a kick in the pants for hope; so it is no wonder that the end of the story could be interpreted as an opportunity to begin anew, even though little has changed.

Ninety miles between Cuba and Florida. So close yet so far. So easy when you imagine crossing in a rustic craft, but so suicidal when you try to do it. The waves seem to say all of this, as they cross the strip of sea between Cuba and the United States. A sea that incites and frightens, present in the film from the first scene.

With the final credits about to appear, there is the sea crashing on a beach, perhaps to emphasize that the journey returns to the starting point. The circle is closed, a Mobius strip that brings us back to the same place. To an Island that draws us to it like a fateful magnet.

6 January 2013