Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls” comes to the Bay Area dragging behind it a string of awards like jangling tin cups after a matrimonial car. These accolades are posthumous for Reinaldo Arenas, the gay Cuban poet and novelist and the brilliant subject upon whom Schnabel’s sophomore film is based.
In an outline, Arenas’ life would seem tragic: Raised in poverty, the writer fought for liberation, only to have the repressive regime turn around and hound him for his homosexuality and his literature both of which he could not repress, both of which embodied his very nature. After a prolonged persecution, Arenas eventually emigrated to America, where he committed suicide rather than succumb to AIDS.
Schnabel does not shroud him in that black despair, because Arenas himself did not indulge in it. Instead, the irrepressible passions that urged his constant writing (all but one of his novels were published outside his homeland) and his countless sexual episodes rescue him from cardboard martyrdom. They also moved him to rail against oppression, whether in its dictatorial form in Cuba or its capitalistic inequality in America.
“Before Night Falls” is less a strict biography than a series of spiritual portraits. Blending Arenas’ landscape of imagination as well as his reality, it doesn’t necessarily add up to one clear picture, but portrays stunning, vivid moments. This explains why its strength lies not in a cohesive story line but in its performances: Javier Bardem alone is responsible for tying on best actor awards from the Venice Film Festival and the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.
Part of its lyricism comes directly from Arenas himself, as the film is based on his autobiography of the same name, as well as his other works. “The splendor of my childhood was absolutely unique,” Bardem narrates over images of a baby Arenas playing in a dirt hole, which resembles a child-sized grave, “because of its absolute poverty and absolute freedom.”
The poet puts forth a sumptuous idyllic youth and an utter poverty without contradiction, underlined as it is with humor. “My early life was surrounded by a group of unhappy women,” he says at one point, as the camera pans over grim-faced, hard-working but beautifully etched faces. One of those unhappy women is his mother (Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Schnabel’s wife).
The sensuous, luxuriant green woods surrounding Arenas’ childhood home belie the hardscrabble upbringing; much of the scenery was shot not in Cuba, where a U.S. embargo still stands, but in Merida and Veracruz, Mexico. Water makes its first thematic appearance here, coursing in passionate, relentless torrents (in his later days of sexual adventure, the water is a caressing, paradisiacal playground, then becomes a roiling, unforgiving vastness to which Arenas escapes as a fugitive on an inner tube).
The first heresy of young Arenas’ talent emerges when his teacher visits his one-room household. “He has the sensitivity of a poet,” she tells his grandfather. In response, the patriarch takes an ax to the back yard, where Arenas has carved out a forest of poetry. Like living scrolls, the tree trunks bear phrases, such as “soon it’s going to rain and my roses will drown.”
The family soon moves to Holguin, where Arenas flees to join the revolutionary army. Sean Penn makes a brief cameo as the dull-witted guajiro who picks up the teen-age Arenas (Victor Maria Schnabel, another case of family-affair casting).
After the revolution which Schnabel depicts by using bleached but vivid historical footage Arenas (Bardem) appears as a young man, entering his first novel, “Singing From the Well,” in a national storytelling competition. His entry gets him a job at the national library, and his (homo)sexual adventures begin with Pepe Malas (Andrea Di Stefano). The bisexual good-looker, driving a car once owned by Errol Flynn, finds Arenas his first apartment and typewriter, even though he flippantly calls the hopeful writer “you poor thing.” Malas’ comment is an omen, for soon Cuba begins to hound artists and homosexuals, forcing the former to renounce their works and sending the latter to labor camps.
Arenas’ accomplishments are less clear in “Before Night Falls” than his spirit. His notorious claim that, by age 25, he’d had 5,000 sexual encounters, for instance, is not fleshed out in carnal detail. Instead, it conveys the essence of this new revolution in which Arenas defiantly participated.
Nor does the audience see him writing other than when he clacks out his first novels on his typewriter, a sheen of sweat over his face and torso from the tropical island heat and the sheer heat of creating. By the time he is imprisoned on manufactured charges of molestation in the infamous El Morro prison, Arenas somehow has authored several more books. Behind bars, he scribbles out one or two manuscripts and composes letters for murderers and other fellow convicts to their families. “I never wrote so much,” Arenas says in an ironic voice-over.
Johnny Depp pulls double cameo duty here, and one of his delicious on-screen moments is as ravishing transvestite Bon Bon. Fabulously tricked out with gold highlights, the prisoner is famed for his/her ability to smuggle out contraband, despite the most meticulous cavity searches. Naturally, Arenas is disposed to make Bon Bon’s acquaintance to get his books out. A less amicable meeting is with Lieutenant Victor, Depp’s other thespian turn as yet another autocrat out to have Arenas forswear his work: This time, “Hallucinations,” published in France, where it won best novel.
His 1980 exodus to America, when Cuba allowed thousands of the mentally ill, homosexuals and other “undesirables” to emigrate, is quickly drawn, perhaps because Arenas himself did not elaborate on his last 10 years in Miami and New York. Yet even during his lonely days in obscurity, with only his friend Lzaro Gmez Carriles (who collaborated with Schnabel on the screenplay) by his side, Arenas did not diminish in his arrogance, ardor or poesy.