'Night Falls': Bardem Soars
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2001
"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.
Javier Bardem, left, and Johnny Depp in "Before Night Falls."
(New Line Cinema)
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
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
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
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
"Before Night Falls" (R, 133 minutes)
Contains nudity, obscenity, beatings and sexual situations.
In English and occasional Spanish with subtitles.