Before Night Falls
Starring: Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and Michael Wincott

Julian Schnabel

Writing credits: Renaldo Arenas, Cunningham O'Keefe, Lazaro Carriles and Julian Schnabel
Distributor: Fine Line Features
Rated: R
  (USA 2001)

Un cri di coeur.

It's a critics' cliche from another era, when films sometimes screamed their passion defiantly, emotionally, beautifully. Films, of course, have moved to other places, and critical cliches with them; in an age where economics and entertainment rule the cinema, it's hard for anyone to hear, much less make, films that are cries from the heart.

But Julian Schnabel's latest work, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, can only be described as one of those soul-stirring cries. Based on the memoirs of gay exiled Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas, the film is an astounding accomplishment. It manages to exult in glorious, fascinating detail the life of its subject, a vastly underrated artist who narrowly escaped Castro's persecution only to die in the prime of his life from AIDS. But it also vividly captures a luminous period in Cuban culture, a time when that agonized country was torn apart by changing political tides. For both the immortalization of Arenas, and for the immortalization of a forgotten Cuba, film lovers can be grateful.

Thanks should be sent directly to the personage of director/co-writer Julian Schnabel, the visual artist whose first film, BASQUIAT, was a critical hit a few years ago. In both that film and this one, Schnabel chronicles a recently-departed artist from the New York scene, a community that Schnabel himself remains a part of. As a filmmaker, he knows how to tell a provocative, tightly-wound story. As an artist, he brings an extraordinary palette to his work, using poetic narratives to illuminate these human stories of loneliness and the search for self.

The colors may be the first things you notice when watching BEFORE NIGHT FALLS. The entire landscape -- the beaches, dancehalls, plowfields, and streets of 1960's Cuba -- seem to be burnt with a reddish-orange haze. Schnabel's use of color gives the film both a Technicolor-era glow and a rooted historical context. The richness of Schnabel's hues, however, goes beyond period flavor -- it makes this dazzling story come alive.

The second thing you will undoubtedly notice is Javier Bardem, the superlative performer playing Arenas. Perhaps known best to American audiences from his work with Spanish director Pedro Almodovar (LIVE FLESH, HIGH HEELS), Bardem is a true find. He inhabits Arenas like he was born to the part, pushing and pressing the limits of Cuban culture and his own artistic and sexual impulses. It is a bravura performance, one of the best in the last few years.

BEFORE NIGHT FALLS follows Arenas from his early childhood to his teenage years as a Cuban Revolutionary to his adulthood as a writer of some renown. As Castro tightens his hold on Cuba, however, Arenas finds himself in danger for his ideas, and the freedom such ideas represent. His persecution -- for being both an artist and a homosexual -- is detailed with emotional precision in BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, as is his subsequent escape to America and his later years in Manhattan, living with HIV.

Language is secondary in BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, and the eloquence of the silent moment has never been put to better use. A raucous Cuban party celebrating a hot air balloon's possible escape, for instance, becomes a beautiful paean to dashed dreams, without one word being uttered. In many scenes of this movie, dialogue would have been either irrelevant or redundant -- the beauty of Cuba and its people tell the story well enough, while Arenas' determined push for artistic freedom, as well as his search for someone to love, need none of the glory-grabbing speechifying that Hollywood films would employ.

There are a few celebrity cameos in the film, which I suspect got it funded -- Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, and Michael Wincott. But these acclamations to the necessities of independent filmmaking are barely distracting. The strength of the film is Bardem's emotional range, which gains deeper and deeper resonance in every scene.

Poetic in style and in manner (Arenas' writings are often heard in voiceover), the film does not shy away from its political environment. Documentary footage of a young Fidel Castro appears often, and words from his speeches are interplayed with Arenas' own. Although some may question the dreamlike aura of Schnabel's cinematography and direction, it seems in perfect balance to the cruel, harsh environment of Arenas' life.

With a sad but surprising coda, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS is extensive, varied, and satisfying. It's a welcome respite from the pablum one finds at the cineplex these days. For audiences with a hunger for ideas, poetry, and the unexpected, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS is just what they're waiting for.

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2001 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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