'Una Noche' review: Dariel Arrechaga stars in Cuban emigre saga

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The Cuban emigre saga earns a surprising love triangle treatment in Lucy Mulloy's "Una Noche," a tale of the young and the desperate willing to risk their lives on rafts to get to America. From its earliest moments to its melodramatic finale, writer-director Mulloy manages to trip up our expectations even while telling a version of an oft-told tale.

Lila ( Anailin de la Rua de La Torre) narrates our story, a teenager enduring an unhappy home life and the torments of Havana's version of "mean girls." A beauty in most cultures, she gets picked on by the blondes who call her "hairy" because of her arms, armpits and eyebrows.

Her twin brother Elio ( Javier Nunez Florian) is her defender and her champion. Don't listen to "the plastic girls," he lectures. But Lila acknowledges in her narration that she is "more comfortable watching people than talking with them. Especially boys."

And she has a competitor for Elio's attention these days. A cook in one of the tourist hotels that are the lifeblood of Havana, Elio is in the thrall of Raul ( Dariel Arrechaga), a handsome hustler who has decided that he cannot stand life in Cuba, where all he has to look forward to is sex and "sweating," any longer. He's determined to float away, and he's decided that Elio will be his running mate.

Mulloy, making her feature directing debut, reveals this odd love triangle from three different points of view. Lila may narrate, and Elio may have the access to raft building materials, but Raul's tricks and chicanery in rounding up the requirements for that 90 mile float trip to Miami dominate the story. He uses women and men, begs "borrows" and steals and has a single-mindedness about this trip that borders on mania. 

Filmed on location in Havana, "Una Noche" shows an impoverished, young generation hassled by cops whose priority is making the city safe for tourists. And the tourists are not just interested in cigars and sand.

It's a city where "the shops are empty, but if you know the right person" goods can be found -- a well-equipped illicit pharmacy here, patchable inner tubes there, a junk dealer who insists a motor he's selling works. If it doesn't?

"Bring it back."

"Una Noche," in Spanish with English subtitles, has a lovely, big budget sheen ( Shlomo Godder was the cinematographer) and a cast that plays this as documentary real. At times, Mulloy lets the sordid side of her story take over. And the film becomes a bit of an eye-roller as the raft hits the water and that becomes the moment the Cubans decide to debate the relative merits of America -- decent paying jobs -- and Cuba -- universal health care.

But for a story that seemingly covers a lot of very familiar ground, "Una Noche" manages to startle and move us in ways we never see coming. 

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UNA NOCHE
(Grade B)
MPAA Rating: unrated, with explicit sex, one scene of graphic violence
Cast: Dariel Arrechaga, Anailin de la Rua de la Torre, Javier Nunez Florian
Credits: Written and directed by Lucy Mulloy. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:27

Photo/Video credit: IFC Films - Weinstein Co.
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