In his directorial debut "Basquiat" from 1996, Julian Schnabel attempted to paint a portrait of artist Jean Michael Basquiat, whose meteoric rise from graffiti to international art circles during the Eighties was cut short by a heroin overdose. Unfortunately, the emotional impact of the biography was diminished by a shallow and disjointed script that played out as a laundry list of events in the artist's life.
For his sophomore effort "Before Night Falls", Schnabel set his sights on yet another artist, exiled Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, masterfully portrayed by Spanish actor Javier Bardem ("Boca a Boca"). Named after Reinaldo's critically lauded book, which was published posthumously in 1993, "Before Night Falls" suffers from the same narrative issues that dogged "Basquiat", which is exacerbated by the fact that this latest film chronicles Reinaldo's entire tortured life, which spans five decades. Though "Before Night Falls" has the same disjointed and distanced sense of his prior film, the dreamy feel and visual flourishes of Schnabel's direction make it at least a feast for the eyes and the ears, especially when masterfully combined with voiceovers of actual text from Reinaldo's memoirs.
The film begins in 1943, the year that Reinaldo is born into abject poverty in the Cuban countryside. During his childhood years (played by Schnabel's own son, Vito Maria Schnabel), we see the first inklings of Reinaldo's passion for words and poetry (as well as his grandfather's violent reaction to the revelation), his gradual estrangement from his mother (Olatz Lopez Garmendia), as well as the first hints of his homosexuality. This early chapter comes to a close in 1958 with the start of the Cuban Revolution, when the young Reinaldo heads to Havana to join in the fight against the Batiste dictatorial regime.
Unfortunately, the revolutionary fervor has all but cooled by 1964, when Reinaldo's vocation as a writer and homosexual lifestyle make him a target of the Castro regime. As Reinaldo so eloquently states in voiceover, it seems that the revolution wasn't for everyone. It is here that the film is most powerful, as it puts a human face on the persecution of those who reside at the edge of society, and makes a poignant plea for tolerance, regardless of the basis for distinction.
Pretty soon, Reinaldo's writings are banned (necessitating that his books be smuggled out of the country for publication), his friends and colleagues are arrested, and a trumped-up charge of molestation gives him a first-hand taste of the Cuban penal system. Over the next fifteen years, Reinaldo finds himself shuttling in and out of jail, as well as in a couple of abortive attempts to escape to the United States. However, he finally gets his wish in 1980 when Castro grants 'amnesty' to criminals, the mentally ill, and homosexuals, placing them on boats bound for Miami. Unfortunately, his hopes for a new life in America, free of persecution, are dashed by AIDS, and in the film's final stretch, we see his last days in New York.
Though the film dashes from one life-event to the next in a mad dash to cover the writer's life within two hours, Schnabel is at least successful in helping the viewer understand what made the man tick. With the effective use of some startling imagery and Reinaldo's own poetry throughout "Before Night Falls", it is evident that the writer viewed himself as a 'child with a dirty face' who wrote out of 'vengeance'. With a harsh childhood, having been denied the freedoms promised by Castro's revolution, and having spent the bulk of his life marginalized by Cuban society, writing was the only means by which he was given a voice.
As mentioned previously, the most remarkable aspect of "Before Night Falls" is the imagery and cinematography, which is not surprising, given Schnabel's background as a painter. Combined with Carter Burwell's stirring score (who also composed for "Hamlet"), there are many sequences in the film that are pure art in the way sight and sound have been united on the screen, and I was often reminded of the similarly-artful execution of "Baraka" and "Koyaanisqatsi".
In what may be one of his best roles, Javier Bardem does a superlative job portraying Reinaldo over three decades, capturing the entire range of emotions that the writer experienced during those years, from the heights of joy when he was part of Havana's literati, to the depths of despair he faced in the bowels of the infamous El Morro concentration camp. Bardem is capably supported by Andrea Di Stefano and Olivier Martinez, who play Reinaldo's companions in Havana and New York, respectively. And like "Basquiat", there are a couple of noteworthy cameos in "Before Night Falls". The first is an almost unrecognizable Sean Penn ("The Thin Red Line") who plays a wagon driver that gives a young Reinaldo a lift. The second is Johnny Depp (seen this week in "Chocolat"), who plays two roles in the film-- a transvestite named Bon Bon (probably the film's most colorful character) and a sinister commandant who coerces a bogus confession out of Reinaldo.
Though director Julian Schnabel more or less gives the audience a fairly good understanding of what motivated exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in "Before Night Falls", the grip of film on one's attention is not as strong as it should be. This is mainly due to the rather episodic structure of the narrative, which for the most part, diminishes the emotional investment of the viewer. However, this shortcoming is made up by the director's distinctive visual style. You don't have to subscribe to Reinaldo Arenas' politics, philosophy, or even his sexual orientation to appreciate the film's saving grace-- the beauty of the images that are masterfully used to drive the story forward, often accompanied by the writer's own words.