For every young bro-teur NYU’s famed Tisch School unleashes on the world, they also cultivate curious, culturally rich filmmakers. Some of the directors I’ve been most excited to discover recently all share ambition, technical mastery, global perspective—and Tisch MFAs. Take Ian Harnarine, whose Doubles With Slight Pepper is a family drama set in Trinidad, or Jonas Carpignano, whose A Chjàna follows African immigrants in Italy. After seeing Una Noche I can add Lucy Mulloy to that list. Her studies in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford brought her to Cuba, where her fascination with the country and culture bred a desire to make a film, and it was at Tisch that Una Noche began its six-year journey to the screen. Inspired by true stories, Mulloy’s film follows three Cuban teenagers who attempt to escape Havana for mythical Miami. It’s a helter-skelter journey through the streets, apartments, and alleys of Havana, a saddened whirl of color and music undercut by hustle and struggle, with a tense third act at sea. Mulloy’s hard work was rewarded at Tribeca, where Una Noche won awards for Best Director, Best Actor (shared by both male leads), and Best Cinematography. Despite her scholarly roots, the film isn’t cerebral or overtly political. Mulloy roots her story in specific, complex, and visceral details of life in Havana, a visual choice as much as a narrative one, and the resulting film is a commanding debut.
The story of Una Noche is more or less told from the perspective of Lila (Anailin de la Rua de la Torre), the protective twin sister of Elio (Javier Nunez Florian). Lila’s narration (which reappears sporadically) introduces us to the twins and their world, and reveals the naïve, wistful way Lila sees their lives as parallel. In her devotion she overlooks the differences beginning to separate her from her brother. Their sex, for one: Lila has a coltish beauty and a cascade of dark hair, but is cagey about her femininity, shaking off taunts by her more womanly peers, preferring to roam the city while hiding in plain sight. But Lila isn’t weak, just guarded, and backs up her mouthy rebuffs with Taekwondo skills.
Though Elio is already a man out in the world, working long shifts at in the kitchen of a fancy tourist hotel, he seems softer and more open. This rings particularly true compared to Raúl (Dariel Arrechaga), a young man he befriends at work. It’s Raúl who supposedly has a father in Miami, and who puts the idea of escape into Elio’s head. As the two begin planning and gathering supplies—a fascinating black market tango where they barter, steal, and are ripped off in good measure—Elio grows distant from Lila, who jealously stalks her brother.
This straightforward plot allows the camera to follow the teenagers around the city, and along the way its eye often wanders. Waves break on sand and concrete, dogs skitter in the streets, and our heroes are loosed on this saturated world, covered in a film of sweat, dust, and hope. The strong visuals and diegetic music match the story’s lusty, anxious energy, which is apt for the teenagers, but also seems true for their Havana. You can really feel the ways in which the constant surveillance, the hustling and looking over their shoulders, molds their nervous systems and keeps life at a chronic pitch. Lila and Elio’s parents are shadowy figures who provide a roof and not much more, while Raúl struggles to buy the medication that keeps his AIDS-stricken mother’s suffering at bay. When Raúl catches her mid-act with a john, he accidentally injures the tourist, and is forced to run from the cops. Panicked, he convinces Elio that they must leave for Miami, and when Lila confronts them she is drawn into their hectic escape. That Elio secretly pines for Raúl only becomes clear once they’ve bound themselves to a makeshift raft, and, rather dramatically, to each other, and are dangerously adrift.
If Una Noche changes tone in its final act, the teenagers keep some of their insouciant cool even as the elements begin to wear them down. As with the rest of the film, the sequence at sea is nicely executed, smartly done with limited means. What impresses most about Una Noche is the commitment Lucy Mulloy and her team made not to a fantasy world, but to the reality of living and working in Cuba, which is inextricably bound to the film’s execution. Mulloy spent a year scouting locations, and during production they worked without cell phones and dodged frequent blackouts. Mulloy auditioned over 2,000 actors to find her three leads, and spent another year rehearsing and preparing with them. The actors had never left Cuba before the flurry of festival attention, and when they came to the U.S. in April, Anailin and Javier disappeared in Miami en route to New York for Tribeca (they’ve since resurfaced, and are seeking political asylum with the aid of an attorney). This seems fitting for a film intent on seizing fleeting opportunity, as Mulloy was forced to do with much of the production.
That brazen energy is nicely balanced with other aspects that were carefully considered, such as the original score (for which Mulloy even wrote a song). In a Q&A following the screening, DPs Trevor Forrest and Shlomo Godder credited Goodfellas as visual inspiration, while Mulloy cited Soviet-Cuban classic I Am Cuba. Either way, there’s a lovely, precise tracking shot through the hotel’s nightclub that could be a hallmark of the film: color, music, and a covetous Raúl peeking through the curtain at the dancing tourists. Una Noche celebrates but doesn’t glamorize Havana, nor its young dreamers yearning for a better life.
— Susanna Locascio