In a beautifully symbolic early moment in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, a young Cuban writer sits at a nightclub table and watches a throng of dancers gyrate to Latin rock 'n' roll. But we do not hear the music that makes the dancers shimmy. Instead, we hear a far slower, melancholy tune that plays in the mind of the observer. The camera circles the writer's face as he watches his lover dance erotically with another, the artist immersed in his culture and at once apart from it, the human psyche wounded, the artist's sensibility stimulated.
Before Night Falls is the story of Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem). The film begins with Arenas' impoverished, rural childhood. As a teenager Arenas joins Castro's revolutionaries, and when Batista flees, the aspiring young writer capitalizes on an era of unprecedented opportunity to attend college and land a job at the national library. In the early 1960s, Arenas enjoys a precious freedom. He labors mightily on his first novel, the award-winning Singing From the Well, and he plunges enthusiastically into Havana's homosexual subculture. The late '60s, though, turn dark. Castro begins his persecution of intellectuals and artists, and his functionaries declare homosexuality an example of capitalistic decadence. After Arenas' second novel is smuggled abroad and published in France, he is imprisoned on trumped-up charges of child molestation. Remarkably, he continues to write. Eventually, he escapes his homeland in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 and lives in exile in New York until his death from AIDS at age 47 in 1990.
Effective as this work is as a whole, not all Schnabel's choices succeed. The decision to have most of the picture's dialogue spoken in English proves entirely puzzling. The heavy accents of the actors make a lot of the film hard to understand. When Arenas arrives in the U.S. and immediately begins to speak sub-titled Spanish, I thought for a moment the director was making a statement about the artist inevitably speaking a foreign language. But that notion exploded when Arenas and his Cuban roommate quickly switch back to their accented English.
Moreover, there are scenes throughout we can't quite follow for reasons other than dialogue. Characters appear without adequate introduction and often disappear without clarifying the reason for their inclusion. The exact nature of Arenas' relationship with roommate Lazaro (Olivier Martinez) remains unclear. They are obviously great friends. Are they also lovers? If so, why are there no scenes of sensual affection? And the entirety of Arenas' decade in New York is too hurried. He finished a half-dozen novels and the posthumously published memoir on which this film is largely based during that time. But we have no sense of that accomplishment, nor of such essentials as how he contracted AIDS and how he dealt with this final, decisive tragedy.
Make no mistake, though, Before Night Falls is arresting filmmaking. Schnabel's painter's eye delivers passages of painfully gorgeous photography as Arenas and his friends take fleeting sanctuary from Castro's oppression by retreating to Cuba's dazzling beaches. Like the stone walls of the prison where Arenas is confined in revolting squalor, however, those beaches are part of the writer's captivity. When he tries to flee his island nation on a truck tire inner tube, he washes ashore not in Florida but on the sand of his own cruel land.
Schnabel is also adept at depicting the paranoia of the tyrant who must always crush any trace of individuality. Arenas' first book is not a political tract; it's about childhood. But Castro's goons nonetheless put Arenas on their watch list, and he's constantly harassed long before he's imprisoned. Arenas' friends are arrested and forced to "confess," to betray their associates and to beg for "appropriate" punishment. Gatherings of more than three people are banned; thus poetry readings are regarded as inherently subversive. As Arenas' mentor Virgilio Pinera (Hector Babenco) explains, the tyrant must destroy the artist because the artist is loyal to beauty, and beauty always stands beyond the tyrant's control. In the eyes of the tyrant, the artist, by his very nature, is a counter-revolutionary.
Before Night Falls has been justly praised for the majesty of Bardem's Oscar-nominated lead performance which invokes an astonishing range of human emotion: innocence, curiosity, elation, disappointment, suspicion, fear, violation, desperation and hopelessness. But my favorite aspects of the film remain its subtle touches. In one, a suffering Arenas drops a houseplant, shattering its pot, then with trembling fingers gathers the stem of vegetation into his hands. Later we see the repotted plant is bloom. Writing was life for Reinaldo Arenas, and as do his hands with the houseplant, his poetry transformed destruction into something of wonder.