Before Night Falls (2000) ***
Directed by Julian Schnabel. Written by Cunningham O'Keefe, Lazaro Gomez Carriles, Mr. Schnabel, from the memoirs by Reinaldo Arenas. Photography, Xavier Perez Grobet, Guillermo Rosas. Editing, Michael Berenbaum. Production design, Salvador Parra. Art direction, Antonio Muno-Hierro. Costumes, Maria Estela Fernandez. Music, Carter Burwell. Additional music, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed. Cast: Javier Bardem (as Reinaldo Arenas), Oliver Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Michael Wincott, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Vito Maria Schnabel, Najwa Nimri, Hector Babenco, Jerzy Skolimowski, Sebastian Silva, et al. A Fine Line film. 135 minutes. R (sexuality, violence, language)
Painter-sculptor Julian Schnabel entered filmmaking with "Basquiat" (1996), about the graffiti street artist who briefly rose to fame. "Before Night Falls," Schnabel's second feature, centers on Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas who is not a household name in North America. To what extent he is or was famous in Cuba, a small nation with a big interest in the arts, is not explicited in the movie. It does not matter much, however.
Arenas, born in 1943, was a poor peasant boy with a rich gift for poetry. He must have been 15 when he joined the Castro-led uprisings (December 1956 on...) against corrupt dictator (and former sergeant) Fulgencio Batista, who had to flee Cuba on January 1, 1959.
The Revolution at first seemed to be good for Arenas. He received an education, found employment, wrote prose and poetry, won a major prize for a book, made friends both in and out literary circles. His friends were, it would seem, overwhelmingly gay.
Per the movie, by Castro-ite standards, intellectuals and/or artists are counter-revolutionary. The mere suspicion of political incorrectness may make someone an object of persecution, and almost guarantees it when the subject practices homosexuality, which Arenas did on a very large scale.
You cannot neatly separate fantasy from fact or near-fact in this movie, and this too does not matter. Arenas's first book was the only one published in Cuba, and found unacceptable by the authorities for reasons unspecified and only hinted at. Arenas, becomes a persona non grata, is oppressed, suppressed, persecuted for his life-style and associations, even framed. He is arbitrarily and repeatedly jailed under abject, near-infernal conditions, thrown into a pile of true criminals, and perhaps other railroaded innocents.
He manages to survive and to smuggle to Europe his subsequent works. In one such case it is BonBon, a flaming transvestite allowed prison visits --for unexplained reasons-- who carries a manuscript in an odd part of his anatomy. He is played by Johnny Depp. Depp makes another appearance as a rather elegant Lieutenant who runs a prison and applies smoothly sadistic methods to get sexual gratification from Arenas. (Much earlier in the movie Sean Penn, unrecognizable, had given a ride in his cart to the teenage Reinaldo)
The acting of Javier Bardem (b. 1969) is outstandingly diverse, powerful and convincing --you keep your eyes glued on him. It's got to be in his genes. He comes from a family of Spanish thespians-- grandparents, parents and siblings-- many of them famous. Uncle Juan Antonio Bardem (b. 1922) was active until recently as director and scriptwriter. In the 1950s cinephiles used to sum up Spain's cinema as "the three Bs: Bunuel, Berlanga and Bardem."
Javier Bardem has acted in two dozen movies, but in the USA the public-at-large has probably seen him only in "High Heels" by Almodovar and "Jamon, jamon" by Bigas Luna.
This is neither a "normal" nor an "academic" or a "reportorial" biography of Arenas, but a fascinating mix of realism, ultra-realism, surrealism, dreams, true as well as invented documentary footage, poetry, fantasy, political criticism.
In a striking, memorable apocalyptic sequence, social outcasts live among ruins, feast, copulate, and are fitting a hot-air balloon to escape to Florida. There is voice-over recitation and excellent Cuban or Cuban-inspired music. The well-filled two-and-a-quarter hours capture moods, mores, tragedy, some humor, life, sadness, joyfulness, pain, history, within a life under pressure. All this is not amount an orderly description of our hero/anti-hero. Though confusing at times it is a rich tossed salad whose main ingredient is Arenas.
In 1980, Castro allowed the departure of "undesirables" of all hues, including homosexuals and many criminals, by opening the harbor of Mariel for several months. 125,000 Cubans thus emigrated to the USA. One of them was Arenas. He spent 10 years in New York, then died of AIDS.
The film is oddly and arbitrarily bilingual, alternating in Spanish (subtitled) and English (with a Spanish accent). As Yul Brynner would say "it is a puzzlement." But what is an admirable puzzle is how most of the movie was shot in Mexico where it recreated so well the sights, sounds, people in their very Cuban-looking racial mixtures, streets, crumbling buildings, and all else with a precision that can fool even those who know the island. Additionally, what I suspect to be New York footage shot on video adds a special grittiness to the last part of the film. Ordinary studio sets and special effects pale by comparison.