Before Night Falls (15)

Director, Julian Schnabel;

Starring Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Johnny Depp;

135 mins
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The Independent Culture

Based on his autobiography of the same name, Before Night Falls recounts the turbulent life and times of the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. Born into poverty during the bad old days of Batista, Arenas joined Castro's insurgency and helped to foment the people's revolution. As a student and aspiring writer in Havana in the early 1960s he found himself at the forefront of another revolution, this time an artistic and sexual one; Arenas was gay, and the film finds its early exuberance in both the clack of the typewriter and the twang of the bedsprings. These high times weren't to last, and there is poignancy in the agonising drift of his life from insider to outcast.

The film is directed by Julian Schnabel, whose considerable self-importance as a painter and superbrat didn't prevent him from making a pretty good debut film about Jean- Michel Basquiat, the doomed graffiti artist who came to prominence in 1980s New York. Unlike Basquiat, however, who styled himself as a street kid yet was actually of well-to-do parents, Arenas was genuinely poor, as vivid scenes of his rural boyhood attest. Raised by his mother and a gaggle other women, unidentified but perhaps related, he remembers gazing at men bathing nude in the river and the extraordinary torrential downpours that transformed the landscape.

When news reaches the family of young Reinaldo's promise as a poet, his grandfather reacts as any man would: he storms from the dinner table and starts chopping down a tree in the yard. The significance of the gesture is baffling, though I did like the way Schnabel films the sequence from the axe's viewpoint, swinging through wild half-circles as it hacks and hews.

Once the story switches to Havana, Schnabel's strong visual sense feasts on the wide blue skies and the peeling colonial grandeur of the buildings (the Mexican cities of Veracruz and Merida provide plausible stand-ins). He uses grainy, saturated colours to convey the headiness of the early revolutionary days, interwoven with actual film footage of the time.

Though he doesn't much look like a 20-year-old student, the Spanish actor Javier Bardem builds his performance as Arenas with a kind of shy authority. His boxer's nose and gentle eyes send out seductively mixed signals, and one can see why people are so eager to befriend him. Arenas seems to be living in a golden idyll, winning prizes for his writing and disporting himself on the beach with his pals as if on some vintage ad shoot for Speedo swimming trunks. But the idyll frays, as idylls will, and the Castro government instigates a crackdown on artists and homosexuals for being, of all things, a counter-revolutionary force of capitalism.

As Arenas puts it: "The drums of militarism were still trained to beat down the rhythm of poetry," a line that sounds like a direct quote from his writing. The script, written by Cunningham O'Keefe, Lazaro Gomez Carriles and Schnabel, is caught between subtitling the Spanish and Bardem's heavily accented English, neither of which gives us much idea of Arenas's calibre as a writer. Schnabel orders his movie poetically, cutting suddenly across time and leaving us to figure out what may have happened in between. Arenas's entanglement with the authorities seems to begin almost by accident, but the shock of his imprisonment and degradation hits hard. Johnny Depp contributes an eye-catching double cameo, first as a blond transvestite who helps smuggle Arenas's manuscripts out to the free world (don't ask how) and then as a tight-trousered military brute who tortures him for fun.

While the film doesn't stint on revealing the despotic nature of Castro's Cuba, with its show trials and systematic humiliations, you may feel, as I did, somewhat bemused by its central character. I knew nothing of Arenas before I settled down to Before Night Falls, and I knew little more of him by the end; his talent, I'm afraid, fails to leave any serious impression. The gap doesn't make his plight any less piteous, but it leaves us in the dark as to his outlaw sensibility, and to the mettle that saw him through. Schnabel still has an eye for a striking image, such as the billowing silk of an air balloon as it lies deflated from a doomed flight, or of Arenas and his friends lying back on the trunk of a convertible as the snow falls around the gleaming canyons of Manhattan; the latter was his place of exile after the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when Cuba allowed a variety of "undesirables", gays included, to leave the country. This was the same exodus that allowed Tony Montana in De Palma's Scarface to enter Miami. Nice company.

The American years, even with his liberty assured, seem hardly less sad than his persecution back home. He ages, shuffling around in a ratty dressing gown and sipping neat Scotch through a straw. Bardem plays him by this stage with a ravaged dignity (Aids has got him), and an impatience with life. This might be the point. Schnabel's reading of his subject suggests that he was not simply a "martyr of oppression", that being caught in a historical tight spot wasn't the transfiguring circumstance of his life. The implication of this flawed but vigorous movie is that Reinaldo Arenas's real torment was the inescapable burden of his own self.