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.

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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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