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Una Noche | Review

And the Deep Blue Sea: Mulloy’s Compelling Portrait of Desperation

Lucy Mulloy Una Noche PosterGranted unprecedented access to film in Havana, Cuba, first time director/screenwriter Lucy Mulloy crafts a vibrantly engrossing tale of desperate youths and their hopeful aspirations, frankly depicting issues of sex tourism and queer identities among an already belabored people. With a locale that threatens to distract, if only for the visual infrequency with which many of us our able to experience it, Mulloy’s slickly paced narrative not only manages to click along with surprising agility, but warmly portrays three adolescents as they take action to pursue a courageous and dangerous dream for a better life. Tenderly observed, Mulloy’s provocative drama is an excitedly assured directorial debut.

Lila’s (Anailin de la Rua de la Torre) opening narration informs us of her profound connection to her twin brother, Elio (Javier Nunez Florian), who has recently begun to distance himself from her. Their home life in discord, with their angry mother constantly railing at their adulterous father, who Lila spies with another woman, it has become clear that Elio may have a secret he’s been unwilling to share with his sister. Eerily she tells us that later she would find out that his love for another. While Lila quietly prefers to observe people rather than interact with them, which allows a duo of female antagonists to taunt her, Elio is also a quiet, sensitive type. He works for little pay in a sweaty restaurant kitchen with his new best friend, ladies’ man Raul (Dariel Arrechaga), and Lila soon discovers that Raul and Elio have concocted a plan to build a raft and brave the perilous shark-infested ocean that separates Cuba from Miami.

At first imperceptibly, Una Noche reveals a narrative crafted primarily around sex tourism and sexual identity. As Lila’s narration makes clear, those not wishing to traverse the 90 mile stretch of ocean between Cuba and Miami depend on the possibility of rich tourists, usually white people, visiting their mainland and taking home a grateful spouse to be. A veritable fish bowl, foreigners with money seemingly have their choice of who they want to buy for pleasure. A trick gone wrong with Raul’s AIDS infected mother rushes their plans into high gear, while Elio, certainly infatuated with his best friend, also sees how outed gay men are treated in Havana. Another 2012 title from Cuba, Antonio Hen’s The Last Match deals exclusively with a young gay couple trying to figure out how to abscond, at least one of them dependent on the money male tourists will provide for his sexual services. An intersection seems to be evident between these recent explorations; among many things, we can’t neglect the rampant sexual exploitation of Cuba’s populace in modern depictions and nor do we forget about from the heyday of Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba.

Working with nonprofessional actors, Mulloy culls a playful energy from her three leads, all of whom, despite their surroundings, are generally quite hopeful. While the narrative is framed by Torre’s Lila, the film is carried by the performances of Arrechaga and Florian. The sun drenched hovels of Havana are stagnantly picturesque, and there’s a glossy sheen to Schlomo Godder and Travis Forrest’s cinematography that almost forgives some choppier sequences, such as an awkwardly paced moment where Lila engages in fight with one of her bitchy tormentors and timely removed from the scenario by a lurking Raul. Sporting a handful of striking visuals, nothing tops a final sequence with Raul and Lila, shivering creatures on a sun soaked beach, juxtaposed with a jeering group of apathetic British teens.

Winning several awards at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, including Best Director, Una Noche’s reception has been made all the more relevant by the decision of its two lead actors to seek asylum in the US after they were allowed to travel here to accept an award for the film. A poignant twist, Arrechaga and Florian, both nonprofessional actors, plucked from their daily lives to star in Mulloy’s film, were granted their own unprecedented access to a better life. Their off camera relationship with Una Noche grants Mulloy’s material an even greater relevance.

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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