Lucy Mulloy’s UNA NOCHE is exquisitely edited. There are maybe two or three clichéd shots, which stand out precisely because the film as a whole is so fluent and sure handed in its visual rhythms. It is, broadly speaking, divided into two sections, both as a film and as a story: the second, which centers on the life-changing night referred to in the title, and the first, which leads up to it. In the transition from the first to the second part, a stylistic shift occurs.

The lead-up is narrated by Lila, the female protagonist, a teenaged Cuban concerned about her brother, Elio, who is plotting to leave Havana for Miami on a rickety raft that he is constructing with his friend Raúl. His motives for leaving are more complex than it seems, but Lila only feels the impending loss that his parting would represent. She shadows him, and tracks down and tries to thwart his plan, and ultimately accompanies the two boys in their escape.

In this whole first section, not a shot exceeds its necessary duration, yet there is also not an instant of jumpiness or disconcertion. It is as though a thread of vibrancy, wound of youth and yearning, is pulled through the shots from one to the next to create a picture of Cuban life that is both naturalistic and romantic, rapturous yet comfortingly everyday, temporal but never stuck, always pulsating, like the heartbeat of a culture. Even as Lila’s concern grows, there is a kind of reassurance in her voice, as though, by throwing what we are watching into the past, she means to tell us that she will endure, for, after all, we are hearing her now.

The narration does not, however, survive the trip onto the water, and the tenor of the experience shifts perceptibly. Her recollections fall quickly away, and the short, carefully parceled shots vanish as well, in consonance with the great expanse upon which the three young people float, on their craft of inner tubes and salvaged wood. Distance becomes confinement and the inevitable pressures push unacknowledged truths to the fore.

The end, whether happy or sorrowful, is not to be revealed. That there is a trial to be endured getting there goes without saying. The cast is remarkable to the point of unbelief: none of them are trained actors, they were plucked from the streets and beaches of Havana for their rightness for the roles they would end up playing. Their story is fascinating, not least for how their lives have transpired since the movie’s release. UNA NOCHE is not just an engrossing first feature by a new director. It is in the very facts of its making, ennobling.

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