Like his only previous film, Basquiat, painter Julian Schnabel s
Before Night Falls is a biopic of a marginalized artist. The subject
this time is the late, gay, Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, played
beautifully by Spanish actor Javier Bardem. The story is a picaresque,
skipping through five segments of Arenas life: a glimpse of his poor, rural,
fatherless childhood in 1943; his status as a teenager in 1958 and his
decision to join Castro s revolution; his schooling and development in
Communist Cuba in 1964; his imprisonment for trumped-up molestation charges in
1974; and his escape to New York when Castro purges the country s undesirables
Schnabel dots his fictional canvas with archival footage of Castro s Cuba and
readings from Arenas work, and it s a heady brew. Schnabel s detailed,
luminous vision of mid-century Cuba (filmed in Mexico) eloquently communicates
the feel of the milieu. Bardem, who appears in almost every scene, is both
cuddly and fiery as Arenas, who grows as an artist by sampling men and
literature with equal fervor and feels betrayed when the revolution he
supported ignites a cultural and behavioral attack on artists and homosexuals.
There are some wonderful moments here: Johnny Depp delivers a breathtaking
cameo as a really fabulous-looking transvestite, smuggling Arenas writing out
of prison in a manner even the Marquis de Sade in Quills didn t
attempt. When Arenas gets out of prison he falls into a loose commune of like-
minded dissenters, who plan an escape via hot-air balloon. And Schnabel
communicates the excitement of Arenas early adulthood awakening by presenting
Cuba in the Sixties as a boys-on-the-beach bacchanalia of homoerotic play.
This is a vivid, accomplished film, but much of Before Night Falls
still feels too familiar the young artist in the city developing his craft,
his subsequent struggle against an oppressive regime, the slow decline from
the ravages of disease. It all may be true to Arenas life, but it also
conforms so closely to the genre that it feels like we ve seen it before.
Schnabel also does little, outside of a couple of brief voiceover readings, to
communicate much of Arenas as a writer. This isn t Dickens or Twain we re
dealing with here, and many in the audience may wonder why we should care so
much about the plight of this specific artist.