Friday, August 23, 2013

Sex and the City

          A couple of recent films set in Havana portray the Cuban capital as essentially an uncredited character in the story.  Both Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío’s 1993 political tale ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ and Julian Schnabel’s 2000 portrait of the poet Reinaldo Arenas Before Night Falls’ give us a city that is decaying before our eyes, a corrupt old roué, for whom even at this advanced age, sex remains the fuel that keeps things going.  People living in ‘La Habana’, especially the young, are desperate to escape the lecherous embrace that seeks to corrupt everyone.  At the same time, anyone struggling to escape, faces a gravitational pull that is stronger than any dying star.

Ironically, even in the current film, Lucy Mulloy’s ambitious tale of love and despair ‘Una Noche’, the specific sexuality in question, as in the earlier two films, is the same-sex kind.  Ironic, because perhaps one of the most macho cities on the planet seems to be undercut by deep threads of homo eroticism, usually unfulfilled, but simmering close to the surface.  In ‘Una Noche’, the sexuality is both easy going and casual and at the same time, the source of motives that drive the story forward.
Brother and sister Elio (Javier Núñez Florián)
and Lila (
Anailín de la Rúa) 
(The final irony about gay Havana, of course, is that after decades of repression and reeducation of ‘Las Maricas’, one of the most visible and prominent LGBT activists in the world has emerged there:  Fidel’s neice Mariela Castro – President Raul’s daughter.)

Mulloy’s film, which was produced with the blessing of Spike Lee, and appears to have been made without a cent of ‘commercial’ investment, has made its way to festivals and film competitions, so that as it begins its main-stream run, it hits the scene with an impeccable pedigree, and a raft of awards.

Mulloy claims the film is based on a true story.  She lived in Havana for a number of years getting to know people, looking for non professional actors for her drama, and in general, figuring out the allure, the sadness, the sexiness, and general despair that pervade the city.

The plot is simplicity itself:  two young men want to escape Havana (a pretty old story).  The younger sister of one of the young men adores her brother, and doesn’t want him to leave for the U.S.  The sexual dynamics within the trio propel the story.  The brother and sister, Elio and Lila, have an easy going love for each other, a chaste loyalty that goes back to their earliest childhood.  Lila is constantly teased for her long frizzy hair, the hair on her arms, and her Frida-like eye brows.  In fact, she is a sultry, nubile beauty, unaware of her innate sexiness, more tom boy than seductress.  As Lila, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre is flat out wonderful.  She reminds us of a very young Anna Magnani, or Salma Hayek.

Into this mix, drops Raul, a bonafide stud/hunk, who gets lots of screen time without his shirt.  Raul claims his chiseled brown chest and arms are the result of not getting enough to eat.  His sexuality is so strong, you can almost smell the pheromones coming off the screen.

Mulloy set’s up Raul’s sexuality as the ‘problem’ of the film; ‘problem’ not in the sense of failure, but rather the source of the dramatic tension that drives the story forward.

The ‘problem’, as it were, is that older brother Elio (a moving performance by Javier Núñez Florián) is totally in thrall of Raul, and sets out to help him escape from Havana, one assumes, more because of his love for the steamy hunk, than any deep desire to escape.  He is torn, of course, between his love and loyalty to his beloved sister Lila, whom he regrets leaving behind, and his lust for Raul, which seems inescapable and doomed.  Raul (a heart-breaking performance by Daniel Arrechaga) for his part is both a romantic protagonist and a cad.  He assumes Elio’s attention and help escaping Havana is borne of brotherly affection, and not a late adolescent crush.  For his part, Raul instantly hits on the Taekwando-practicing Lila, who will have none of his nonsense.  She apparently has no particular problem with her brother’s sexuality, but rather dislikes Raul because he appears to be taking advantage of her brother.  Her dislike of Raul, however, is not so strident that she won’t allow herself to be caught up the boys’ attempt to escape Cuba, for Miami, 90 miles away.

There are other characters – the young people’s families, co-workers and acquaintances, each displaying another form of decay and corruption – are more or less incidental set pieces for the story.  Their contributions are primarily to demonstrate the hellish nature of the life the youngsters want to escape.

The great miracle of the film, however, is Mulloy’s wonderful sense of observation.  Her carefully chosen views of the intoxicating city, paint a rich and moving picture of a metropolis rotting in on itself, falling apart at the seams, and yet singing, drumming, dancing, having sex, seducing, and getting on with life.  In another light, Havana would be a sweet paradise.  But life has become so shabby for most people, torn between desperate survival and oblivion, that morals, ethics, civil behavior simply falls away.  It is the opposite of innocent.  Petty theft, disease, crumbling buildings, barely functioning cars and broken lives are the back drop to Raul, Lila and Eilio’s desperate efforts to escape.  It is no wonder that the young trio sets out in the face of enormous peril:  compared to what they are leaving behind, almost no danger would be too much.

Mulloy is clearly a film maker to be watched.  Even though the ‘Una Noche’ runs out of dramatic juice toward the end, it’s a work of enormous promise, and a display of keen observation that really gets under your skin.  The real star is none of the sexy trio at it’s heart, but rather the ravishing and ravaged city of Havana itself.