In Cuban Film and in Real Life, Defecting Tempts the Young

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Two recent movies dramatize struggles to leave the island—just as two actors decide themselves to do so.

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Una Noche

A few key people were missing last week when top awards went to the Cuban drama Una Noche at the Tribeca Film Festival. Two of the film's stars, Javier Núñez Florián and Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, both 20, had disappeared into the Miami throngs a week earlier, slipping away from costar Dariel Arrechada and the film's producer during a layover between Havana to New York. Arrechada accepted half of one of the festival's honors—he and Núñez Florián shared the award for best actor—and cheered alone as writer-director Lucy Mulloy won the prize for best new narrative director. No one had heard yet from Núñez Florián or de la Rúa de la Torre.

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A few days ago, the couple resurfaced and confirmed that they'd be seeking asylum in the U.S. But even before learning the news, Arrechada spoke to the press in New York, defending his decision to return to family and friends in Cuba and insisting that while he had chosen a different path, he respected whatever decision his castmates made.

The irony here is that Una Noche is about Cubans defecting—and in the film, it's Arrechada's character who's desperate to leave the island. Noche, in fact, is one of two recent international films grabbing attention for their portrayals of the complexities of life in Cuba today. While technique and tone vary wildly between Cuban zombie film Juan of the Dead and lyrical Una Noche, a foreign production that was made in Havana, they're united on one point whose verisimilitude, it would seem, has gotten a sudden boost: Cuba is a tough place to be a young adult.

IT'S HARD TO SURPRISE A CUBAN because, as Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) says to his best friend Lázaro while they fish off the shore of Havana in the first scene of Juan of the Dead, "I've already been through the '70s, the '80s, the special period [the economic crisis that accompanied the fall of the USSR in 1992], and whatever it was that came after that." Cubans have seen it all, survived it all, know it all—so it makes sense that the only thing that could stymie them is herds of the undead, aggressively taking over their capital city.

When the gallant, deadbeat antihero Juan discovers he has a knack for killing these undead, he decides to capitalize on the crisis. With his new company—made up of Juan, Lázaro, Lázaro's son Vladi California, a snappy neighborhood drag queen and her sidekick, and Juan's imperious 20-something daughter Camila, who's come to visit from Spain—he's determined to keep his friends and family safe while turning a profit off everyone else. From the moment Vladi grabs the pay phone on the roof of their apartment building and says "Juan of the dead, we kill your loved ones," you never really doubt he'll succeed.

Juan of the Dead generally follows the plot-points of 2004's Shaun of the Dead, but plot itself seems beside the point. The story's just the vehicle for the acid-like burn of dark Cuban humor, which lifts the movie above the fold of genre films. The action is quick, the actors have chemistry, and the jokes about Cuba's atheism, machismo, government, tight-knit communities, and nonchalant city operators are frequent and oh-so-un-PC. The sun-washed feeling of downtown Havana jumps off the screen, and the gore is campy enough not to make stomachs turn. Suddenly, it feels like every other zombie film should have been set in Cuba—that Cuba is the only place where anyone could be counted on to survive a supernatural phenomenon and even laugh.

As the film progresses, though, there are just too many zombies to kill, and that's when Juan, Lázaro, Vladi, and Camila decide to take to the seas. Made from one of the old jalopies for which Cuba is known, their "boat" is cherry-red and confidence-inspiring. But when it's time for Juan to jump in, he demurs, staying waist-deep in the blue water. Camila and Vladi are young and should start new lives in Miami, but he'll stay. It's not so bad in Havana. He'll sort it out.

A "boat" features prominently in Una Noche, too, though it's decidedly more rickety. We are now in a very different Havana: bright and menacing, dour but restless, a maze of drooping power lines, policemen, and not much laughter. Teenager Lila (de la Rúa de la Torre) had heard about the people who leave Cuba on rafts for Miami, but, as she intones in a breathy voiceover at the start of the film, "I never imagined someone would try to leave me." Her twin brother, Elio (Núñez Florián), who works with the handsome, flirtatious Raul (Arrechada) in the kitchen of the Hotel Nacional, has plans to do just that. They're collecting the materials to build a raft: wood, compass, sheet, inner tubes. Raul wants to join his father, about whom he knows little except for that his prostitute mother says he is in Miami. His mythic presence hovers over the city and promises Raul an easier, more glamorous life than the one Raul now has, which is marked by the quick colloquial banter of the hot streets of Cuba and the sharp edges of teenage angst.

Mulloy, a Londoner who based the story on a tale she heard from a young boy on a visit to Havana, filmed Una Noche in locations that hadn't been used in other movies. This city is of public parks and back alleys, of bare foam mattresses and sheets wafting in the air to separate the sleeping spaces of too-crowded apartments, of cinderblock and rickety balconies. The only real pleasures in this Cuba are the cool sensation of wet clothing on hot limbs after leaping into the ocean, the thrill of riding a bike too fast down a main avenue, vague dreams of a future elsewhere, and sex. Sex pervades the film, the only way to escape the drone of daily life or to get what you want, because the community offers little but cruelty and persecution. Mulloy's Havana is not a place that many would return to or stay in.

To teenage Havanans, the exodus of 20-somethings is a well-known fact of life, merely another complication of adolescence. The departures are often either a reflexive "go" like Raul's, with fantasies built around friends and family who have left, or a troubling but anticipated weighing of the pros and heavy cons. "If you love something, you stay and fight for it," Brugués said at a Q&A after a Juan of the Dead screening last month during the Havana Film Festival New York, which ran the week before the Tribeca festival. It's a familiar thought, a reproach that echoes through young Cuban minds caught between love of homeland and the expected opportunities for personal advancement abroad. But these films tell us both literally and visually that Havana today doesn't have very much to offer the young, and reality would appear to concur.

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Julia Cooke's art, culture and travel writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Conde Nast Traveler, Design Observer, Monocle, and other magazines and newspapers. She lives in New York.

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