Before Night Falls

“Before Night Falls” is the title of the memoir of Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas which was published 3 years after his death in 1990, and now it’s also a film. Arenas didn’t live an easy life (what artist ever did?), and it didn’t help to be born in Cuba. Anybody who still thinks that Castro’s Cuba is romantic has to see some of the persecution he was and still is responsible for. Cuba was poor even before it was communist, like most of the Caribbean, but it was free then. At least that’s what we gather from the film’s early moments, in which we see Arenas as a joyful child running around wide spaces, in awe before the sky, the trees, his mother. Later, as a teen, his mom moves to a Cuban town with Reinaldo’s grandparents, just at the US-supported Batista regime is brought down by Fidel Castro and the rebellion. Arenas leaves home to take part in the revolution, which for him turns out to be mostly sexual…. Homosexual, that is. He also takes a liking to the written word and starts penning poems and his first novel, the only one of his that will be published in Cuba. Arenas will then be censored for both of his means of expressing his personal freedom, his homosexuality and his art. Art celebrates something that the dictatorship can’t control, beauty, and gayness is seen as a way to fight the regime. “Whoever locks revolutionary genes, whoever locks revolutionary blood (…) we don’t want them,” goes the regime’s crooked thinking.

With Arenas being both gay and an artist, he is constantly persecuted, eventually getting imprisoned in concentration camps. Why? For corrupting youth, being reactionary, counter-revolutionary. But really, for smuggling his censored second novel to France, where it was published, and for his orientation. Castro imprisons not only criminals but also, in Arenas’ words, “homosexuals, political dissidents and anybody who wears their pants too tight!” Arenas eventually has to renounce his ways publicly to be freed, but he remains anti-Castro and leaves Cuba in the Mariel Harbor exodus in 1980, which was a way for Castro to send criminals, homosexuals and the mentally ill to the US (this was also what brought gangster Tony Mantana in America, in De Palma’s “Scarface”). Freedom at last? Maybe not. Arenas, who was sick with AIDS, killed himself in New York in 1990.

Okay, so my summary is meandering and confused… Well, so’s the film, in a good way. It’s a biopic, but then again it isn’t. The film does begin with Arenas as a kid growing up in the Cuban countryside and end with his death as a poor, sick, desperate “stateless” exiled in New York City, but that’s just the framework. The movie is actually more about the spirit and the writings of Arenas than about the mere facts of his lifetime. It’s not only a film about a poet, it’s also a poetic film. We hear Arenas’ writing being read in a voice-over while we see montages of images. At other times, there isn’t any dialogue at all, the poetry comes through only visually… This isn’t a very literal movie; a lot of storytelling is visual, and many stretches are in Spanish, not always with subtitles. But it doesn’t matter: the story is not as much told as it is expressed. “Before Night Falls” is to biopics what “The Thin Red Line” is to war movies, basically.

The film was directed by Julian Schnabel, whose second film this is, after “Basquiat” (1996), which was also after a misunderstood artist. Schnabel is originally a painter and it shows. Few movies are this beautiful, this imaginative. Yet this isn’t just a lot of pretty shots (even though there are plenty of that, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography by Guillermo Rossas and Xavier Perez Grobet). The film alternates moments of imagination with some of tough realism, and even excerpts of documentary footage. It all merges to create an extraordinary visual experience, heightened by an effective score and various Cuban songs. Last but not least is Javier Bardem (sort of a Spanish Robert Downey Jr, minus the addiction), the heart and soul of the movie. His portrayal of Arenas is simply fascinating. He goes through all sorts of ups and down but always remains true to his spirit. He won Best Actor at Venice, and he can expect an Oscar nomination come next February.

“Before Night Falls” might have won the Grand jury Prize at the 2000 Venice Film Festival, but it’s not a movie for everybody. I myself was a bit confused at first, what with the thick Spanish accents and the absence of a clear plot. Then I stopped trying to “get” it and just went with the flow… I got to enjoy the musical Spanish intonation of the narration (taken right out of Arenas’ book), shared Bardem’s initial enthusiasm, suffered with him, found a way out… I enjoyed Johnny Depp popping in not once but twice, as a transvestite who smuggles items in jail in his/her bum, and as macho military man. I got a feel of the bizarre balance of hell and heaven Cuba seems to be, with filthy poor towns overlooking beautiful beaches and seas. I even felt that maybe love between too men could be nice (not for me, but ya know…). And throughout, themes do poke through, mainly the search for freedom, whether artistic, sexual or politic. “Before Night Falls” is an art film in the best sense of the expression; not a boring, pretentious picture but an unrestrained, fascinating slice of filmmaking.