Before Night Falls
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 9 February
achieves a kind of visual poetry, rhapsodic and turbulent. And for
the most part, it is joyous, even breathtaking, to watch. Julian
Schnabel's second arty biopic is, much like his first, 1996's Basquiat,
a heady mix of wonder and polemic, in love with its subject and also
full of itself. Based on the writings of Cuban writer Reinaldo
Arenas (Javier Bardem, in a riveting performance), Before Night
Falls traces his arduous, fabulous life, from his impoverished
childhood in the Oriente province, through his days as a promising
student at the University of Havana and prize-winning young
novelist, to his years of imprisonment by Castro's regime, as a
homosexual and dissident. And then, for an inexplicably brief few
minutes, the film wraps up by montaging Reinaldo's final ten years
in New York. Here, in 1990, he committed suicide at the age of
forty-seven, while suffering from AIDS.
a lot of life to pack into a little over two hours, and the film
does it by working across media, layering Arenas' own poetry in
voice-over, elaborate camera moves, and vibrant colors. It opens
with a camera looking up at a canopy of lush trees, taking the point
of view of the infant Reinaldo in his mother's (Olatz Lopez
Garmendia) arms, while the adult Reinaldo narrates her ordeals,
abused by his father and unhappily returned to her parents' home,
the child "the sign of her failure."
here the film cuts to the boy, three or four years old, naked and
digging about in a muddy hole. He looks content, but again, the
camera -- craning up and out from the hole, then speeding back and
away at ground level -- intimates his restlessness. Like all the
childhood scenes, this one is tropical and heated, as Schnabel and
cinematographers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas translate
Reinaldo's evolving "natural" passions into rich greens
and deep browns, and lots -- I mean lots -- of water. The camera
repeatedly shows Reinaldo enraptured by rain, waterfalls, rivers,
the ocean. Obviously, such images of thrilling torrents are
metaphors for sex, but they're about the sensuality and freedom that
Reinaldo feels driven to put into words.
many women in his early life encourage the boy's
"sensitivity," but his grandfather rejects it. When
Reinaldo's teacher comes to the house to announce that her student
has a gift for poetry, the old man -- already concerned that the boy
is girlish -- goes ballistic, chopping down trees on which his
grandson has carved poetic musings. Reinaldo and the teacher look on
aghast, the camera whipping back and forth, taking on the
grandfather's -- or maybe even the axe's -- point of view.
bizarre, impressionistic imagery is of a piece with Schnabel's art,
known for its spectacular unruliness. Before Night Falls
includes other jarring moments, as when Reinaldo, running away from
home, catches a ride with a cart-driving peasant, played by a
heavily made-up, corny-accented Sean Penn. This episode delivers
Reinaldo directly into the next stage of his life: when the peasant
dumps him off, he's picked up by a truckload of triumphant anti-Batista
rebels, who are warmly welcomed by villagers along the road. At this
point, around 1958, Reinaldo comes into his own -- and turns into
Javier Bardem -- studying in Havana and becoming sexually active.
This will, of course, get him into all kinds of trouble under
Castro's rule. While the film does not enumerate Reinaldo's many
sexual encounters (Arenas claimed he had 5,000 by the time he was
twenty-five), it does suggest his pursuit of pleasure, pain, sex --
experience of all kinds.
his hazy crazy beach-cruising days are numbered, and it's not long
before he's arrested. At the infamous El Morro prison, Reinaldo is
locked in solitary confinement, in a metal box with a dirt floor.
When he's in the regular prison population, Reinaldo gets along by
writing letters for all the prisoners, while also keeping up his own
writing. He's aided by resident drag queen Bon Bon (Johnny Depp,
looking as lovely as he did playing a harem girl in Don Juan
deMarco), who smuggles his work out so that they might be
published in Europe. The film makes the metaphorical point that no
one is always quite what he seems, I suppose, by also casting Depp
as Lieutenant Victor, the prison authority most determined to beat
Reinaldo's defiance and creativity out of him.
scenes inside are harrowing, of course, but like everything else in
this episodic movie, they pass by like some surrealish dream.
Reinaldo doesn't "develop" as a character so much as he
survives. Finally, after his release from El Morro, Arenas does
leave Cuba during the chaotic 1980 Mariel Harbor exodus, when Castro
evicted Cuba's "deviants, homosexuals, and mentally ill."
Once in New York City, he and his friend Lazaro Gomez Carriles (now
guardian of Arenas' estate and played in the film Olivier Martinez)
enjoy one ecstatic scene, driving through Greenwich Village streets
in a convertible. Almost immediately, Arenas falls ill; in his
suicide note, he blames Castro for everything.
has clear ideas about the sanctity of self-expressive freedom,
political and artistic. But he carefully avoids close analysis of
his subject or even much explanation of events, preferring to detail
surfaces and let viewers grapple with what he/she sees. The film is
frank about its own obsessions and passions, which are, in the end,
more Schnabel's than Arenas'.
Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' interview with
Andrea Di Stefano
Lázaro Gómez Carriles
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult