Before Night Falls
Directed by Julian Schnabel
The gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas was a kind of open wound of
left politics in the '80s. As a censored author in a communist dictatorship,
he was walking proof of a God that failed, though the anti-communists,
neocons and anti-Castro Cubans who heralded his cause also often
found his sexually charged art somewhat alarming. As a victim of
anti-homosexual persecution in a puritanical regime, Arenas was
an icon for the rising movement of gay and lesbian identity politics,
as much for his performance of his sexuality as for his art. When
it became evident he was dying of AIDS, he also became a symbol
of gay demands for more social resources directed to the disease.
As an outspoken organizer of anti-Castro activities, he won the
scorn of New Leftists who believed that the post-Mariel Cuban government
had learned a lesson from its ugly history and that gay activists
like Arenas were being exploited by right-wingers.
Variously hailed and denounced for reasons that intersected with
but did not capture his passions, Arenas continued furiously to
compose poetry and novels. In an expiring act of vitality, he completed
his memoirs--and then, in impoverished exile in New York, took his
own life at the age of 37 in 1990. Now another high-profile artist
has told Arenas' life story, in Before Night Falls, a film
which borrows its title from the author's memoir.
Director Julian Schnabel is a celebrity artist, an artist of celebrity
even. He launched
his career in the plastic arts within the aura of Andy Warhol, succeeding
in making the pop artist downright peevish with jealousy. No amount
of critical contempt for the crude simplicity of his broken-plate
sculpture-paintings stopped him from becoming a gallery and society
darling. When his first film, Basquiat, came out in 1996, critics
lined up to pour scorn on the artist's work in a new form, only to
find a highly watchable film on the Brooklyn street kid who capped
a meteoric career in the art world with his death from a heroin overdose
In Before Night Falls, technically a far more ambitious
project than Basquiat, Schnabel showcases for broader audiences
his uncanny combination of charm, corn, exuberance and sentiment.
The movie works terrifically. It features a central performance
by Spanish superstar Javier Bardem who fully deserves his multiple
awards (notably at the Venice Film Festival). It tells a compelling,
tightly paced tale. It's full of small visual wonders and laced
with delicious celebrity cameos (Johnny Depp both as a transvestite
prisoner and as the prison guard; Sean Penn as a cranky peasant),
as well as a nice turn for the director's liquidly handsome young
son as the youthful Arenas.
The film stays on the safe side of every political controversy.
To Cuban-Americans mobilized to pounce on the film for being soft
on dictatorship, Schnabel has simply put Castro on screen, in documentary
footage that indicts him out of his own mouth. For gays and lesbians,
this is a richly drawn portrait of someone whose sexuality was an
essential aspect of his public art and the passion for freedom that
infused every part of his art. And Schnabel has not slighted Arenas'
criticism of his refuge in exile. He features a quip Arenas developed
in his first encounters with the U.S. press: "The difference between
the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give
you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud,
while in the capitalist system you can scream."