Before Night Falls

on December 22, 2000 by Kevin Courrier
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Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls," based on Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas' memoirs, is messy, passionate and impressionistic. It's certainly absorbing, but Schnabel gets so caught up in the melodramatic sweep of Arenas' life that he blurs out the specifics which might help us understand his sensibility as an artist. Although some of his writing, his more harrowing experiences and his homosexuality are covered, those areas are only broadly defined. One comes away thinking that he only became a threat to the Castro government because he liked picking up guys in Lenin Park.

Arenas (Javier Bardem) was an artist devoted to satisfying his voracious sexual appetite. He won a National Book Award for his first novel, "Singing From the Well," when he was only 20. As well as suffering political persecution (which often involved being set up by friends), he also did hard prison time before leaving Cuba in the 1980 Mariel Harbor boatlift. Ironically, when he finally found freedom as an exile in New York, he contracted AIDS and committed suicide in 1990. What put him in direct opposition to Castro's idea of the New Socialist Man was the fact that Arenas was someone out for his own personal satisfaction.

Although Javier Bardem has a smouldering presence as Arenas, we never see what made him such a vividly romantic writer. In "Before Night Falls," Arenas is simply a victim of his own homosexuality in a Latin culture teeming with machismo. We see those friends--and foes--come into his life, but they barely register, and often add confusion. Some cameos, like Sean Penn as a peasant, are a lark, and when Johnny Depp shows up as a transvestite in a Cuban prison who hides Arenas' entire manuscript up his rectum, it's a classic comic turn. Starring Javier Bardem, Andrea di Stefano, Oliver Martinez, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and Michael Wincott. Directed by Julian Schnabel. Written by Cunningham O'Keefe, Lazaro Gomez Carriles and Julian Schnabel. Produced by Jon Kilik. A Fine Line release. Drama. Spanish-language, subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 125 min.

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