Before Night Falls
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 9 February 2001


Before Night Falls 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.

It's 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."

From 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.

The 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.

Such 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.

But 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.

These 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.

Schnabel 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 Julian Schnabel.

Directed by:
Julian Schnabel

Javier Bardem
Olivier Martinez
Andrea Di Stefano
Johnny Depp
Michael Wincott

Written by:
Cunningham O'Keefe
Lázaro Gómez Carriles
Julian Schnabel

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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