From the small screen of my iPad I glimpsed my city, and my heart sank. There was my barrio, Santos Suarez, in all its faded glory. A cruel shell of its old self. There was my old middle school in La Vibora. I think. It’s hard to tell, but I thought I recognized the mustard-colored walls and graceful arches of its cavernous hallways. Who knows? Lots of buildings in Havana have good bones, yellow walls and elegant touches.
I worried about the buildings when I recently saw the film Una Noche, but I wept for the people. The ruins, I’m used to. Dilapidated walls and destroyed facades can be rebuilt with cement and bricks. But it takes a lot more to rebuild — from the inside — generations of disfranchised, disconnected, and rudderless people.
Shocked and angry at the amorality and aggressiveness of the characters in the film, I sought out the British-born director of Una Noche, Lucy Mulloy, who, as it happens, lives in New York. We had lunch. Lentil soup and a tabbouleh salad, but neither one of us was enjoying the food or the view of a peaceful and pretty park in the center of bustling Manhattan.
I asked Lucy if her film was all true, if that was truly Cuba today, if there is no decency left on the island.
She looked at me with her big brown eyes, with what I now know was compassion, and said that it was all true — the locations were real and the people were non-actors representing what she had witnessed in Cuba. But it was not the only truth. During the decade that she lived on and off the island, she also met young people who study and work, as well as kind neighbors and attentive partners.
“The film is also about love, many manifestations of love,” she wrote to me later in a note. Yes, but what stunned me into silence when I reached the end wasn’t the love — filial, maternal, romantic — but the sight of so many sweaty, selfish, foul-mouthed and frustrated people who drink too much and use sex as a weapon or as a commodity.
Una Noche tells the fictional story of three young people who want to escape Cuba on a raft. Though it ends badly, it could have been worse. Lucy, who began working on her film as a student at New York University, says she was inspired by a story that she heard in Havana’s Malecon about three teenagers who left in a raft. Only two were brought back to shore by the capricious currents of the Gulf of Mexico.
The story she heard was so gruesome that she decided to make it more palatable. To tell more here would be to ruin the ending of the film for those who haven’t seen it, and everyone needs to see it.
Despite the societal degradation the film depicts, there are moments of tenderness and solidarity: A mother warming up milk for her son, a little boy offering to get a doctor for a drunken teenager and a weathered old man helping a would-be balsero inflate a raft. Lucy captures that, because, she said, she wanted to reflect the complexities of Cuba, the gray areas. Yet, she also said, the character of the naive 13-year-old girl who shuns prostitution sprung from her imagination.
“I didn’t meet anyone quite that innocent,” she said.
I wondered then if Raúl Castro had seen the movie when it played in Havana last December, just months before he chided Cubans for being so rude and amoral. This is how The New York Times described Castro’s frustration in a story on July 23.
“In a speech to the National Assembly, Mr. Castro said that Cubans’ behavior — from urinating in the street and raising pigs in cities to taking bribes — had led him to conclude that, despite five decades of universal education, the island had ‘regressed in culture and civility.’ ” The reporter goes on to cite Castro’s chagrin because Cubans have lost their “honesty, decency, sense of shame, decorum, honor and sensitivity to others’ problems.”
What the article doesn’t say is that those values have been lost not “despite five decades of universal education,” but because of it. After all, who was doing the educating in Cuba? Who has been in charge for more than five decades? In the 1970s, the only time in Cuban history where the island was truly isolated, to speak correctly and to address grown ups in the formal second person — usted instead of tu — was considered bourgeois.
My fifth-grade teachers made fun of my mother because she insisted on calling them señoritas rather than compañeras. On my walk to middle school, I was occasionally the target of kids who threw stones at my feet because I was “too white,” whatever that meant. And who can forget the acts of repudiation during the months of Mariel?
Many years have passed since, and sweeter memories have replaced the bitter incidents of my childhood, but Lucy’s film brought it all back — the envy, the chivatos (snitches) in the neighborhood, the fears — because the seeds of all the ugliness Castro is now complaining about were planted long ago, perhaps as early as when the children of my generation were taught to replace our loyalty to, and respect for, our parents with a silly slogan: “ Fidel es mi Papá y Cuba es mi Mamá.”
Fidel turned out to be a cruel and neglectful father. And Cuba — oh Cuba! — a very weak and defenseless mother.