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'Before Night Falls' Tells of Gay Author's Struggle

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2001


    'Before Night Falls' Javier Bardem, left, and Johnny Depp in "Before Night Falls." (New Line Cinema)
clouds of parrots, wind-rattled palms, torrents of tropical rain: Julian Schnabel, painter and director, colors his cinematic canvas with the sensual images of Reinaldo Arenas, the gifted Cuban author portrayed in "Before Night Falls." Inspired by Arenas's richly detailed poetry and prose, this seductive film chronicles the writer's ceaseless quest for freedom -- artistic, sexual and political.

When we meet Arenas, he's a toddler, confined to a playpen that is nothing more than a muddy hole in the ground. There he sits, buck naked and happily getting acquainted with Mother Earth, his first muse and the most important woman in his life. As a teenager, he leaves his own mother (Olatz Lopez Garmendia, the director's wife) to join Fidel Castro's revolution.

His first novel, "Singing From the Well," wins praise from the government's cultural institutions -- but it quickly becomes clear that individuality has no place in this workers' paradise. Eventually he and his circle of gay intellectuals are hounded, rounded up and imprisoned for their sexuality and their counterrevolutionary stance.

The movie boasts an extraordinary performance by the sultry Spanish actor Javier Bardem, a major star in his native land. Bardem (winner of the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival) offers a tender, accessible depiction of the character as a gifted intellectual, cruelly punished for his passions, his heedlessness and his courage. Never once does the actor diminish the man with a swish, a lisp or a limp wrist. (The only quibble: His accent is so thick, it's frequently difficult to make out the dialogue.)

Johnny Depp, disturbingly effective in a dual role, plays a flouncy imprisoned transvestite and a sadistic but flirtatious prison guard. Italian actor Andrea di Stefano is devilishly amoral as the fickle bisexual who introduces Arenas to Havana's flourishing gay subculture. Olivier Martinez brings both potency and poignancy to the role of Lazaro Gomez Carriles, a close friend of Arenas's and co-writer of this screenplay.

Though Schnabel's first picture, "Basquiat," was notable for its excess and self-indulgence, the filmmaker shows restraint and maturity in this moving depiction of Arenas's life and loves, the lushness of his tropical homeland and the never-ending conflict between governments and artists who break the rules.

"Before Night Falls" (133 minutes) is rated R for graphic sexual content, language and violence.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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