Adapting the autobiography of gay Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, artist turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel has fashioned 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 in “Before Night Falls.” A considerable leap in accomplishment from Schnabel’s 1996 feature debut “Basquiat,” this fascinating drama, told in a loose, light-footed style that adroitly skips through almost 50 years of personal and political history, is centered by a magnificent performance from Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Fine Line has a number of strong marketing avenues through which to position the December release — focusing on the gay angle, human rights issues, the enormous interest in Cuba right now — providing what appears to be solid commercial footing.
Admirers of Arenas’ critically acclaimed book — published in the U.S. in 1993, three years after his death — may gripe about the choices made by Schnabel and co-scripters Cunningham O’Keefe and Lazaro Gomez Carilles. (Latter was a long-term friend of the author, particularly during the final, AIDS-afflicted stretch of his life in New York; he’s played here by Olivier Martinez.)
But while it inevitably concentrates on certain periods and breezes through others — Arenas’ childhood especially and establishment of his relationship with nature, the nurturing of his family and his attachment to them, and the grounding of his sexuality in an earthy environment — 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.
Perhaps most admirably, the script addresses the many issues raised cogently and directly, taking an unequivocal view without ever resorting to forced agenda dialogue to hammer its point.
The choice to world-premiere the film in Venice is a curious and possibly courageous one, given the idealized view of Castro’s Cuba by many leftist Europeans, perhaps Italians most of all.
The scalding portrait assembled here — in particular regarding the regime’s treatment of writers, artists and homosexuals — will make this a controversial, talked-about release in many territories.
Opening in the lush rural landscapes of Oriente Province in 1943, the film sketches impressions of Arenas’ poor but carefree upbringing through voice-over dialogue, much of which is lifted directly from the source book.
The homosexual leanings of Reinaldo (ably played at this age by the director’s son, Vito Maria Schnabel) while barely in his teens are conveyed as he gazes at men bathing in a river.
Also introduced early on is a water motif that recurs throughout, seen in rain, floods, pools, beaches and oceans as both a destructive and sensual force.
Leaving home as an adolescent, Reinaldo is swept up by revolutionary fervor as he arrives in Havana. By heightening the color and playing around with film stock, Schnabel cleverly integrates archival footage — reportedly the only color film shot of the revolution — to illustrate the moment of excitement, optimism and political ferment, while Arenas’ poem, “The Parade Begins,” is heard in voiceover.
This is one of several instances in the film in which the author’s writings are used to great effect and one of many skillfully handled narrative expedients.
Entering a literary competition, Reinaldo (played as an adult by Bardem) attracts the attention of an influential member of the literatti who allows for his novel “Singing From the Well” to be edited and published.
This book would be his only work ever released in Cuba. Reinaldo also begins more fully to explore his sexuality, running with a bunch of young gay friends that includes untrustworthy bisexual Pepe (Andrea Di Stefano).
Listing the three things he enjoyed most in that period, Reinaldo names his typewriter, the youth of those days and his discovery of the sea, with the latter two glowingly captured in the sensual, sun-drenched look of this section.
As the oppressive tactics of Castro’s regime grow harder to ignore, sex becomes an important weapon to Reinaldo, as does his writing. But both make him a target of unwanted attention.
When a fellow poet is put on trial for holding an illegal gathering, several names connected with Reinaldo are implicated. He learns of the existence of a concentration camp on the island for homosexuals and political dissidents and is arrested on false charges of molestation, prompting him to make an abortive attempt to float to Miami on an inner tube.
Back in Cuba, he attempts to hide out but is discovered and imprisoned at El Morro, where he survives by penning love letters to the wives and sweethearts of other inmates, at the same time working on a novel.
In the film’s most amusing sequence, Johnny Depp makes one of two brief but memorable appearances as Bon Bon, a gutter-glamorous transvestite with a talent for rectal smuggling, who shifts several chapters of Reinaldo’s book out of the prison at a time.
But the discovery of this subterfuge and of the French publication of his work lands Reinaldo in solitary confinement. Broken by brutality, inhuman conditions and the sinister sexual manipulations of a handsome young lieutenant (Depp again), he signs a full confession and a statement acknowledging the worthlessness of his writings, which facilitates his release.
After another abortive escape attempt in a hot-air balloon, this time foiled by Pepe, Reinaldo seizes on a 1980 amnesty allowing anyone homosexual, mentally ill or with a criminal record to leave Cuba.
Together with his friend Lazaro (Martinez), he joins the 250,000 Cubans in the Mariel Harbor boatlift. While the book details his disastrous attempts at integration in Miami, Schnabel takes Arenas directly to New York, where his hopes of a new life of freedom are destroyed by AIDS.
This shattering final stretch, which closes powerfully with a poem by Arenas, becomes increasingly wrenching as Lazaro nurses Reinaldo through his final hours, promising not to let him wake up in a hospital.
A beefy, masculine actor who has been consistently impressive in Spanish films such as Pedro Almodovar’s “Live Flesh” and Bigas Luna’s “Jamon Jamon,” Bardem seems somehow to shrink his muscular frame into a more delicate, fragile presence, uncovering a feminine side that steers judiciously clear of effete mannerisms or queeny caricature.
His nuanced performance runs from sexy brashness and dignity to wounded vulnerability and battered despair, reaching quietly devastating peaks in the final scenes as he succumbs to helplessness and death.
Solid support is supplied by Martinez and Di Stefano. Given the casting of Spanish, French and Italian actors as the three leads, considerable work clearly has gone into dialogue coaching, with accents sounding quite uniform. Sean Penn appears early on in an almost unrecognizable cameo as a Cuban wagon driver with a mouth of gold teeth.
While Schnabel has continued to refine his filmmaking skills, there’s still a refreshingly bold, almost experimental feel to many of the visual devices used here, with frequent inventive flourishes that reveal his background as a visual artist.
Handheld shots are used effectively and in moderation by lensers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas, alternating with graceful, gliding camera movement.
Quite distinct looks have been created for the various periods of Arenas’ life: deep, dreamy greens and earth tones for his rural childhood; crisp colors and hazy light for the idyllic Havana years; shadowy darkness and hellish reds in El Morro.
Carter Burwell’s beautiful score is sparingly heard, alongside a wealth of Cuban tunes and additional music by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.
In addition to Arenas’ autobiography and other writings, Schnabel also sourced a BBC documentary on the author by Jana Bokova. Footage from a banned Cuban film titled “PM,” which is mentioned at one point, is seen over the end credits.