Thursday, February 8, 2001
Because writer-director Julian Schnabel first made his mark on the world as a painter, it's not surprising that he can imbue seemingly mundane images with a captivating exoticism. In "Before Night Falls" simple sights like rainfall or streetlights take on an overwhelming beauty that's not apparent to the naked eye.
Similarly, as a filmmaker, Schnabel can take on an apparently spent genre like the biopic and produce a pair of films that ooze vitality as they give their subjects a much needed celebration.
In both "Basquiat" (his film portrait of friend and fellow painter Jean-Michel Basquiat) and "Before Night Falls," the director deals with artists whose premature deaths leave the world a much poorer place. In the latter movie, Schnabel recalls the tribulations of Cuban-born writer Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem, from Pedro Almodovar's "Live Flesh"), who committed suicide in 1990 after a long fight with AIDS.
From even the beginning of his life, Arenas was a square peg. He was an illegitimate child who idolized his distant mother (effectively played by Schnabel's wife, Olatz Lopez Garmendia). In his short life, Arenas completed 20 books while irritating Fidel Castro's government. Arenas managed to do all this while hiding in the woods, rotting in jail or suffering with IV tubes stuck in his arms.
While it was bad enough that his writings occasionally revealed the hollow truth behind Castro's promises, the authorities felt a special hatred for Arenas because he was gay.
The Cuban government kept a series of prison camps especially for homosexuals, and Arenas and others constantly lived in fear. Because of censorship and a false charge of molesting boys, the author often lived in hiding and destitution and received little benefit for the acclaim his books received abroad. Only one of his works, "Singing in the Well," was ever published in his native land.
Even after leaving Cuba for the United States in the Mariel boatlift of 1980, Arenas was confined to society's margins.
Despite all of the misfortunes that occurred in his subject's life, Schnabel frequently fills "Before Night Falls" with a strong sense of wonder, making the film as enthralling as it is gloomy. Schnabel and his co-screenwriters Cunningham O'Keefe and Lï¿½zaro Gï¿½mez Carriles (a longtime friend of Arenas) complement the bold, colorful images by incorporating generous passages of the writer's work into the voiceover and the pictures themselves. Sometimes they'll interrupt the action and replace it with newsreel footage, while Bardem recites some of Arenas' verse. From listening to the actor read Arenas' words, it's obvious that this writer's skill made the dictatorship wary.
They also do a fine job of capturing his amusingly defiant attitude. When an intimidating prison official (Johnny Depp, who also has another interesting role as a drag queen) bullies Arenas into renouncing his work, the guard ï¿½ a crotch grabber with a macho demeanor ï¿½ inadvertently winds up exciting the prisoner's homoerotic fantasies.
Not all of Schnabel's decisions work. For some odd reason, Sean Penn (spouting a "we-don't-need-no-stinking-badges" accent) appears in a small, unconvincing cameo as a Cuban peasant early in the film. Because Penn is more familiar than the other actors in the film, his presence is a jarring distraction.
In addition, the New York scenes are anticlimactic and redundant. That's a shame because some of Arenas' bravest acts of defiance were committed on these shores. Despite his failing health and poverty, he drew international headlines by calling for a yes or no vote of confidence for the Cuban regime.
Bardem's appealing presence is the film's most crucial element. Because he is genuinely sympathetic throughout, the episodic narrative manages to hold together. With all the calamities that come Arenas' way, "Before Night Falls" might have been a gloomy bore with a lesser leading man. Bardem's work seems even more impressive after learning that he had to take a crash course in English to play the role.
Schnabel seems to have a radar for picking strong leading actors. "Basquiat" wouldn't have worked as well had Jeffrey Wright ("Ride with the Devil") not played the title character. "Before Night Falls" is similarly strong because Schnabel and Bardem's passion for Arenas' work continually surfaces, making the end product worthy of the novelist himself.