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'Night Falls': Bardem Soars

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2001


    'Before Night Falls' Javier Bardem, left, and Johnny Depp in "Before Night Falls." (New Line Cinema)
"Before Night Falls" opens with a close-up of a little boy sitting in a squalid hole in the ground, and as director Julian Schnabel's camera pulls back we see the naked child surrounded by a world of incredible beauty. "Trees have a secret life that is only available to those who are willing to climb them." Thus intones the lyrical, enigmatic voice-over, in the thick (and I mean viscous as honey) accent of Spaniard Javier Bardem, who plays – no, reincarnates – the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas.

I say reincarnates, but I have never seen or heard Arenas speak, although footage of him exists in "Havana," the documentary film that first inspired Schnabel to tell Arenas's life story. Nevertheless, the actor's performance is so fleshly and full of heat it throbs. Bardem as Arenas feels like a person, not an impersonation.

Based on Arenas's posthumous 1993 memoir, "Before Night Falls" begins in 1948 with Arenas's hardscrabble childhood in rural Oriente province in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The film then tracks him on three main courses: as a banned artist, as a soon-to-be-disillusioned supporter of Castro and as a gay man persecuted by the government for his sexuality. The threads are intertwined with one another in a story line that snakes sinuously toward the writer's battle with AIDS and 1990 death while living in exile in New York City. The screenplay, written by Schnabel, Cunningham O'Keefe and Arenas's real-life friend Lazaro Gomez Carriles, is mostly in heavily Cuban-inflected English, with ample doses of narration translated from Arenas's books and poetry.

What Schnabel, a painter, brings to the table is not necessarily biographical accuracy but a kind of visual poetry familiar to viewers of his first film, "Basquiat," a 1996 biopic based on another martyred artist, the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. It's sometimes difficult to tell whether what we're watching is happening or merely taking place in a character's mind.

While Arenas is still a schoolboy, his grandfather flies into a rage when told by a teacher that his grandson has an aptitude for writing. Grabbing the boy and an ax, the old man rushes outside to a grove of trees marked with carved lines of verse and starts chopping in front of the terrified youngster. It's only a metaphoric foreshadowing of what's to come: After winning a prize for an early book, Arenas entered a state of perpetual censorship by Castro, having to resort to publishing his manuscripts abroad. It's noteworthy that at no point are we shown exactly why his books are bad, except for the fact that they are beautiful. Beauty, we are told, is the enemy, being something a dictator cannot control.

Arenas's homosexuality, of course, is also problematic. What complicates things is the fact that the sexual revolution was taking place simultaneous to the political one, undermining the free expression of love with an insidious undertow of puritanism. Soon Arenas is imprisoned on trumped up charges of child molestation, and it is here that his spirit begins to break in the roiling surf of Castro's schismatic society. The always remarkable Johnny Depp, playing both a sadistic prison official and a transvestite inmate in whose body cavities Arenas smuggles out his literary contraband, is a walking emblem of this duality.

Keep your eyes peeled for a quick cameo by Sean Penn as a gold-toothed peasant, but be forewarned: This is not a film about its stars. Schnabel and company are there not to strut but to serve the sad, sweet tale of an artist's struggle. In the end, it seems, it's a struggle not just to make art but to exist, which is itself an art. And to that goal, the cast members, led by the astonishing Bardem, allow themselves to be devoured by the roles they are playing.

"Before Night Falls" (R, 133 minutes) – Contains nudity, obscenity, beatings and sexual situations. In English and occasional Spanish with subtitles.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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