To decide on a single coherent impression of “Una Noche,” Lucy Molloy’s debut film, is quite the challenge. Under the guise of a coming-of-age story, the film tackles the reality of life in Cuba in a very human way, pairing anguish and frustration with teenage pining in a world seldom seen by American eyes.
At the center of the film are three teens: slick-haired and muscular Raul, with his fantasies of lovely Miami; his friend and coworker Elio, with whom he suffers in a grimy hotel kitchen; and Elio’s sister Lila, whose arm hair provokes her peers to tease her about her delayed womanhood.
While it is primarily Raul, whose desires to leave the country set the film’s action in motion, it is the many women of the film who accelerate the events that unfold, each contributing in her own way to the party’s inevitable departure.
Raul’s mother, a weathered woman with a soft voice, is a compassionate character, forced to prostitute herself to make ends meet. Raul undoubtedly cares for her, but is detached—he resists her physical affection, but scours the city’s black markets in search of Vilatraxina, an expensive drug to combat the effects of the HIV that his mother picked up from “dealing with” tourists.
Younger than Raul’s mother, but not by much, is one of Raul’s mistresses, a fair skinned woman who feeds him rich pastries and gives him American technology in exchange for the sexual reprieve he provides.
On the other side of the spectrum, albeit with a similarly minor role, is a young girlfriend of Raul’s who provides one of the movie’s many comic moments. When her inquisitive father decides to spy on his daughter and she discovers him, we are treated to shrill barks of chastisement in his direction. The point is clear: there is nothing like the wrath of a Latin American woman.
And finally, Lila, whose brief narration consisting of local adages and reflections on the past tie the different parts of the movie together. She is unlike all of other Raul’s love interests; resisting his advances, she pores over their interactions in private, recalling those moments in earnest. This is indicative of her character—beyond the taekwondo-practicing, hair-on-her-arms, tomboyish exterior is an unsteady, unsure pre-teen girl.
From the first frame, what we see is a surprise for American audiences. The film paints a richly colored and sundrenched Havana—dirty white porticos of showy tourist hotels, grainy but rich reds of meat butchered in the filthy kitchens of these hotels, ashy grays of the dilapidated slums of the city, deep blues of the 90 miles that separate the holding pen of the miserable teens and the promises of Miami, a father Raul has never met, the chic populace and wealth waiting to be reaped. However, while his dream is never truly realized, Molloy takes the scenic route, infallibly capturing the local culture and essence through an honest lens.