Schnabel’s film tackles one of the most difficult genres in filmmaking-biography-and succeeds not only in telling the life story of gay dissident and writer Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem) in alternately beautiful and grotesque episodes, but ultimately transforms the story of the writer’s struggle into a cutting statement on the survival of art despite, or maybe because of, the most appalling circumstances.
Never heavy-handed, painter-turned-filmmaker Schnabel captures the desperate poverty of Arenas’ childhood in the Oriente province and contrasts it subtly with the natural opulence of the sea and surrounding tropical areas-so that even the men young Arenas sees bathing nude in the river are less individuals, or early indications of Arenas’ homosexuality, than extensions of the fecund jungle, laborers glimpsed and transformed into mythic gods by the artist’s (both Schnabel’s and Arenas’) fierce, untamed vision.
Idealistically taken in by the promises of the Cuban Revolution, Arenas, at the age of 16, joins Castro’s forces and for the next four years revels in the artistic, sexual and social license granted by the political confusion. In his memoir, Arenas wrote that by age 25, he had had an estimated 5,000 sexual encounters-and the film does not shy from revealing this part of Arenas’ lifestyle. The movie is peopled with an extraordinary cast of incredibly good-looking men in all states of undress, especially Arenas’ first boyfriend Pepe Malas (Andrea Di Stefano), who is perfectly cast as the playboy who is not gay, straight or even bisexual-just so completely voracious in his sexual conquests that he can hardly distinguish between the two genders.
Throughout the film, Schnabel cleverly inserts color footage of Castro’s speeches, not to create an authentic, documentary look but to show the wild, romantic fervor that swept the nation. In ironic contrast to the frenzied adoration granted Castro by the crowds, the official footage shows that Castro’s overheated rhetoric is already rife with threats against the intelligentsia.
At the age of 20, Arenas’ only novel published in Cuba, “Singing from the Well,” won Honorable Mention at the coveted Cirilo Villaverde National Competition and garnered respect for its author. With this newfound admiration came the attention of Virgilio Piñera (in an interesting cameo by Hector Babenco, director of “Kiss of a Spider Woman”) who becomes Arenas’ literary mentor, warning him, in those heady days of limitless abandon, that the Castro regime considered art dangerous and all artists as counterrevolutionaries-and homosexuals as undesirables.
Castro’s attack in the late 1960s on artists and homosexuals, accurately predicted by Piñera, rendered Arenas an easy target for persecution. Here the movie’s color palette switches from cool, blue-green swathes to claustrophobic yellows and reds, with the jail scenes depicted in harsh, exquisitely controlled chiaroscuro.
Detained on trumped-up charges of molestation, the conversation that ensues between Arenas and the arresting officer is perhaps the film’s best example of the capriciousness and cruelty of the totalitarian state:
“You are under arrest.”
“Because I say so.”
In prison, Arenas begins writing letters for prisoners in exchange for cigarettes, which he then unwraps and uses as paper to start his next book. To smuggle the manuscript out of the prison, Arenas enlists the aid of Bon-Bon (Johnny Depp), a transvestite who sports glittering eyeshadow and an incredibly voluminous ass. Depp shows up again as the sadistic prison guard who uses sexual manipulation to force Arenas to declaim his life’s work as worthless and exacts a promise from Arenas to “reform his homosexual lifestyle.”
Depp’s dual cameos are especially effective when compared with Arenas’ own literary style; the irony and bitter humor that informs the best of Arenas’ work is translated extremely well by Depp’s brief appearances.
When Arenas finally escapes Cuba as part of the Mariel emigration, the movie, as if paralleling Arenas’ own decline to a life ravaged by poverty and AIDS, loses all of its energy and vitality. The New York section is based largely on the recollections of close friend Lázaro Gómez Carriles (Olivier Martinez), who shares writing credit with Schnabel and Cunningham O’Keefe. Unfortunately, it is the least powerful part of the movie and gives the impression that it is included only to tie up loose ends. Arenas’ suicide scene is oddly bereft of emotion or empathy on the part of the director-the only misstep Schnabel takes in an otherwise perfectly plotted film.
The gifted Spanish actor Javier Bardem (the first Spanish man nominated for Best Actor Oscar), deserves a separate mention for his work in “Before Night Falls.” Previously specializing in hard-boiled masculine characters like the detective in Pedro Almodovar’s “Live Flesh,” (see below), Bardem, with his almost uncanny resemblance to Arenas, brings refreshing innocence, heartbreaking vulnerability and genuine courage to this role.
At the end of the film, Bardem reads a prose poem by Arenas, called “The Parade Ends,” detailing the crumbling Havana cityscape: “walking along streets that collapse from crumbling sewers. Past buildings you jump to avoid … in case they fall on you. Past grim faces that size you up and sentence you.” But alongside the degeneration of the totalitarian regime, Arenas, like Bulgakov and other artists resolved on sacrificing life for ideals, finds hope in writing and beauty in creation, that no persecution could break.
The poem concludes with Arenas sitting at his typewriter spinning hundreds of images, “starry nights, bare feet, pine clouds / Hundreds, thousands, a million parrots, stools, a climbing plant,” until “the walls recede, the roof vanishes, and you float quite naturally / you float uprooted, dragged off, lifted high / you are transported, immortalized, saved, honored / Thanks to that subtle, continuous rhythm …”
The rhythm of the typewriter closes the movie, and, despite the cruel realities of Arenas’ life, there is a sense of closure. Though Castro’s politics drove Arenas to despair and a too-early death, it is Arenas’ banned, reviled, persecuted works that are ultimately given immortality-and no totalitarian control could burn out the talent, the drive or, finally, the triumphant victory of Reinaldo Arenas.