Before Night Falls (2000)

Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Lázaro Gómez Carriles, Cunningham O’Keefe & Julian Schnabel, based on the memoir of Reynaldo Arenas
Starring Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea DiStefano, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn

My Advice: Wait for Cable.

The life of Reynaldo Arenas (Bardem) was one filled with persecution. Born into abject poverty, never really knowing his father, he grew up to become not only a writer, but a homosexual male--two things guaranteed to make life hard in Castro’s Cuba. An abusive lover (Martinez) and wrongful imprisonment don’t help matters either. In fact, Arenas went on to become a published writer, but not in his own country. His books had to be smuggled out of prison and the country in order to be published abroad. The film tells the story of the writer's trouble life, with few punches pulled.

Julian Schnabel, by original trade a painter, certainly shows his visual prowess with the film. The true standout of the piece is the work that he and cinematographers Xavier Pérez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas did with everything from a simple tracking shot along bare muddy ground to a deflating hot air balloon lying on a sidewalk. It’s the images of the film that linger long after the performances are gone. Although Bardem’s perfomance of Arenas is commendable, and obviously at many times quite a feat, he cannot rise above the film stock environment he’s placed in. The film, clocking in at a mere two hours, feels much, much longer. And although Julian is to be commended for trying to cram in as much of Arenas’ life into the film as possible, perhaps a better job with editing might have helped the flow.

Novel cameos by Sean Penn and Johnny Depp, the latter as a transvestite and also a government official with a thing for pocket pool, are indeed novel, but not much else. Just when you want the film to take off and rise above its subject matter, it can't seem to get off the ground. Sequences such as Arenas in prison, amassing a fortune in cigarettes because he’s actually literate, he can read and write, seem to be taking you somewhere, but we never find out where. For example, for a film about a writer, I was very disappointed that, being as I am unfamiliar with the works of Arenas, more work by the author was not included in the film. Also, I would have wanted to know a little more about the inner workings of the man. Specifically, how does one rise above a life such as he led and be able to be published and renowned as an author, and more importantly, the subject of a bio-pic? As it stands however, what they have managed to accomplish is a film with a few memorable moments, many memorable images, that will appeal mostly to people who are already familiar with the author in question. For those people, I would suggest a matinée. But for everyone else--wait for cable.

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Buy the book from Amazon!
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