Before Night Falls

         BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, the second feature film directed by Julian
 Schnabel marks a giant leap in his development as a movie maker. By offering
 this terrific nontraditional biopic of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas filtered
 partially through the writer's art, Schnabel doesn't allow the movie to become
 bogged down in the "facts" so much as it evokes the spirit of the man. The
 overall results are visually and dramatically amazing.

         Schnabel cowrote the screenplay with Arenas' friend Lazaro Gomez
 Carriles, and they have more or less divided
 sections, each with its own distinct palette. They begin with scenes of Arenas'
 childhood (where the teenage incarnation of the writer is played by the director's
 son Vito Maria Schnabel) which are filled with verdant mountains and bright
 sunshine. Despite a life of poverty and surrounded by women, Reinaldo proves
 interested in literature and writing.
         The second section is dominated by the pastels of Havana and traces the
 meteoric rise of the college age Arenas (portrayed by Javier Bardem in a
 well-deserved Oscar nominated turn). The writer revels as much in the sexually
 liberated times of pre-Revolutionary Cuba as in his literary accomplishments.
 Gradually though, as Fidel Castro solidifies his power and cracks down on
 homosexuals and intellectuals, the colors darken until they take on a hellish
 tinge which coincide with Reinaldo's imprisonment.

         By the time Arenas has arrived in Manhattan via the Mariel boat lift
 (after a stop in Miami which is omitted from the film), nearly all the color
 has been drained from the screen. New York City is dull and gray and Arenas'
 struggle to assimilate into a culture that doesn't prize freedom in quite the
 same way as he sees it turns heartbreaking as he contracts AIDS and eventually
 resolves to end his life with the assistance of his longtime pal Gomez Carriles
 (nicely essayed by Olivier Martinez).

         BEFORE NIGHT FALLS is a hallucinatory look at the life of a potently
 talented individual who dreamed of liberty. The cast is uniformly terrific, with
 Bardem appropriately dominating the film. Contributing cameos are a virtually
 unrecognizable Sean Penn and film directors Jerzy Skolimowski and Hector
 Babenco. Johnny Depp appears to have relished the opportunity to play the
 dual roles of a drag queen with an unusual capacity for smuggling and a
 martinet officer who forces Arenas to sign a statement repudiating his fiction.
 Andrea Di Stefano also makes an impression as Pepe, a Judas-like bisexual
 "friend" of the author's.

         Thanks to Schnabel's visual sense and his unconfined but sharp direction
 coupled with Bardem's stunning performance,
poignantly captures the essence of Reinaldo Arenas and introduces a new
 audience to the artist and his work.

                                 Rating:         A-
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.