Julian Schnabel’s first film was Basquiat, a gritty portrait of a young black painter who caught the eye of Andy Warhol. Now Schnabel points his unflinching eye at a gay Cuban writer who saw the best and worst of Cuba during the Cold War.
Before Night Falls gives us Reinaldo Arenas’ entire life, compressed into 130 minutes. The scope is epic, even if the running time is not.
Arenas (played by Javier Bardem, an actor with great presence and range) was born to humble beginnings. He was raised by a roomful of “unsatisfied women,” when he wasn’t ignored. At a young age he had a predilection for poetry, which enraged his stepfather. As soon as he was old enough, he ran away from the family farm to join the Cuban revolution.
After Castro’s revolution (lasting only a few minutes of screen time), Arenas goes to college, where the gentle young soldier bloomed into the man he would become, discovering both writing and sex. Cuba in the early sixties, when Arenas is at college, is presented in beautiful, vivid color. Pretty young men and women walk around campus in sharp-looking clothes and drive the streets in rich, big convertibles.
To Arenas and his friends, the Communist revolution was also a sexual revolution. Life was good, love was strong, and Arenas published his first book through his job at the national library of Cuba.
“People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship.”
But the enjoyable aftereffects of revolution would not last long. Arenas’ friends were persecuted as homosexuals, and the new Castro regime was cracking down on poets, writers, and intellectuals. Sex and writing became symbols of rebellion, political statements against oppression. They gave Arenas and his friends a sense of power and meaning.
But this sense of power could not last. The government and military were simply too strong and too repressive to allow Arenas to continue living his life. When fate finally brought him into the justice system, it didn’t matter that he was the complainant. Once his lifestyle was discovered, he became the defendant, and his fate was sealed. It was not long before Arenas was imprisoned as an enemy of the state.
“Needless to say, the revolution wasn’t for everybody.”
Arenas continued to write in prison. His books were published, but only in foreign countries. Life was bleak as a political prisoner in Castro’s Cuba. The change from the opulence of pre-revolutionary Cuba to the repressive, poverty-stricken Cuba of today is gradual and visible. The final act of the film shows Arenas in America, having arrived in the Mariel boatlift of 1980. He tries to regain his life but this old-looking, AIDS-ridden man has undergone too much. The bright days of dancing in the Cuban sun with good-looking boys and convertible cars are gone.
Before Night Falls paints a vivid picture of Cuba. Watching it, you may realize how little Americans actually know about life in Cuba. We hear the word “Cuba” on the news, we see pictures of Castro, but Cuba’s culture and people aren’t portrayed on TV or in movies. Americans really don’t understand on an emotional level what Cuba is like. Through Arenas’ eyes we can understand better the Miami Cubans’ hatred for Castro and their desperation to come to America.
Not Quite Top Ten
Like Basquiat, Before Night Falls compresses an entire lifetime into two hours. In order to fit it all, a clear, linear storyline is sacrificed. There are jumps in time and space that are sometimes confusing, making the movie less immersing. These jumps are inevitable, but they come at a cost.
Some friends of mine, I am sure, would find Before Night Falls boring because of its episodic nature and its lack of a single, overriding plot. I myself think the film could have been cut another 10 or 20 minutes.
But Before Night Falls has some great qualities. Bardem gives an outstanding performance as Arenas (he was nominated for the best actor Oscar). Schnabel’s portrait of the writer is interesting and insightful. The depiction of Cuba is rare and revealing. Before Night Falls probably won’t make my top ten list, but it’s a rare find, and worth a look for the adventurous or political moviegoer.