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 in 1980. 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.


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