After his debut feature about troubled graffiti artist “Basquiat,” filmmaker Julian Schnabel tackled another fact-based chronicle of a struggling artist who met a premature demise, “Before Night Falls,” about Cuban novelist-poet Reinaldo Arenas.
Given its reception at the international film fests of Toronto, New York and Venice, where Schnabel won the Grand Jury Prize and Javier Bardem won best actor, the biopic represents a quantum leap for the painter-turned-director in only his sophomore effort.
Based on Arenas’ critically acclaimed memoirs published in 1993, three years after his death of complications from AIDS, the
film covers almost 50 years of personal and political history — from Arenas’ extremely impoverished youth in rural Cuba through his indoctrination among Castro’s rebel forces to his sexual awakening and eventual persecution as a gay man and dissident artistic voice to his exile in New York.
Daily Variety critic David Rooney in his review called the film “a dense, emotionally satisfying portrait of a man, a time and a place while making a moving statement about marginalized existences and the basic right of freedom.”
The story is told in a straightforward, deliberately low-tech manner while employing fairly bold aesthetic flourishes. The cinematography reflects the subject’s gritty reality. As Rooney reflected, “the drama covers ample ground to communicate a full, rich sense of a life driven by art and sex but stifled by injustice, persecution and suffering.”
While the film’s indie origins and little-known cast might make it seem like a long shot for major Oscar kudos, it also arrives at a time (it opens Dec. TK) when few films seem to be emerging as major frontrunners and critics are starved for accomplished, fully fleshed-out adult dramas.
This film also features the kind of issues — sexual, political and artistic persecution — that the Academy tends to rally behind.
Based on buzz and Fine Line’s commitment to the film, Schnabel might benefit from a strong Oscar push, as will Spanish actor Bardem, on whose performance the movie is anchored. Bardem’s chances for Oscar gold is not far-fetched: relative unknowns F. Murray Abraham and Geoffrey Rush won best actor for playing stifled artistic voices in 1984’s “Amadeus” and 1996’s “Shine,” respectively, while William Hurt mined Oscar gold as imprisoned homosexual Luis Molina in 1985’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”