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Fine Line Features
Official Site
Director: Julian Schnabel
Producers: Matthias Ehrenberg, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Jon Kilik, Julian Schnabel
Written by: Cunningham O'Keefe, Lázaro Gómez Carriles, Julian Schnabel; based on the memoir, Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas
Cast: Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Michael Wincott

Rating: out of 5

Painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel's (BASQUIAT) second movie is yet another biography of a great artist. BEFORE NIGHT FALLS takes its title from the memoirs of Reinaldo Arenas, which Arenas began while in a Cuban prison. A novelist, poet, and homosexual, he was imprisoned for allegedly molesting minors, but it was really because he was a novelist, poet, and homosexual in Castro's Cuba. The movie follows the life of Arenas from its beginning, in rural Cuban poverty, to its end, in AIDS-stricken New York City poverty. In between his birth and his death he explores homosexuality, has his books censored, parties a lot, and goes to prison.

BEFORE NIGHT FALLS is a biopic which avoids the major pitfall of most biopics, namely a lack of a focus. After all, here is yet another biography which starts from its subject's birth and ends with his death. Though the episodes presented from Arenas' life at first seem so scattered and diverse as to lack thematic unity, they all come together to form a unified portrait of Artistic Freedom (represented by poetry and homosexuality) being the chief weapon of Oppression (represented by the Castro regime).

When Reinaldo takes his first tentative steps toward art and gayness, he unwittingly embarks on the path of a freedom warrior. Even seemingly random interludes, such as a surreal adventure with a hot-air balloon in an abandoned church, achieve relevance when viewed with this lens. Thus, the movie becomes a marvelous hodgepodge of beautiful imagery in the service of events alternately humorous and gravity-laden. In Schnabel's able hands, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS is not only deeply poetic; it also sports a sense of whimsy missing from films typically described as "deeply poetic."

For instance, in an early scene, a schoolteacher asks young Reinaldo to name a male body part. Reinaldo replies "A dick... a long, skinny dick,” while gazing at a map of Cuba, floating like a long, skinny dick in the middle of the Carribean. Throughout the movie, Arenas' fascination with penises is also a fascination with Cuba itself.

An even sillier example occurs later on, when Reinaldo struggles to admit his homosexuality to himself while working at his university library. The section where he can't seem to decide whether to enter is the "Hemeroteca." (That translates as the "Periodicals Room," you dirty-minded person, you.)

The movie is rife with such visual puns for the quick observer. I am usually bored to tears by movies which try to be "deeply poetic." But by not always taking itself so solemnly, this movie's more serious imagery—such as the recurring symbolism of rushing water to represent overpowering forces, or a impoverished little boy personifying death —is actually palatable. Enjoyable, no less.

But the credit does not only go to Schnabel and his cinematographers. Carter Burwell also deserves special mention for yet another fine score; as does Arenas himself, for the haunting poetry selections interspersed throughout. And the performances are uniformly top-notch, by a cast of actors primarily unknown to mainstream America. (The respective cameos by Sean Penn and Johnny Depp are a bit jarring, however. But if it helped get more producers to fund the movie, more power to them.)

The real standout here, though, is Javier Bardem as the adult Arenas. Bardem is just terrific. He is charismatic, sensitive, and utterly convincing as he portrays Arenas through an enormous spectrum of experiences. I'm not gay, but if I were...

...ahem. Anyway, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS is not just another biography of a fascinating man in a colorful setting. It actually makes a coherent statement about how we rebel, and why we ought to.

—Quin Arbeitman

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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