Biopics about writers don’t come along often–Zola, Burroughs, a few others. Perhaps the reason lies in the difficulty of translating into film terms a process that is essentially internal. A painter can be observed painting, a dancer, dancing. Composers at least get to have triumphant performances of their works. Writers sit at their typewriters or computers, and then the book comes out. In and of itself, the process does not have the makings of high drama.
Director Julian Schnabel, whose first film was based on the life of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, returns with a biography of Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), a gay Cuban novelist and poet. Arenas was born into rural poverty and never knew his father. He attended university in Havana and then worked in the national library. His first novel won honorable mention in a competition and was published in Cuba. But Arenas attracted unfavorable attention from the authorities. "People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship," his mentor warns him, "Artists are counterrevolutionaries."
In a dreamy scene of workers bathing nude in a river, Schnabel shows that, even as a boy in Oriente province, Arenas was attracted to men. When a teacher reports to his family that he has a sensitivity for poetry, Arenas’ grandfather goes into a rage; Arenas learned early about gender prejudice in the macho Cuban value system. During his university years, he overcame his own initial resistance and became an active participant in gay life. While the early years of the Cuban revolution saw a corresponding sexual revolution, it turned out that "the revolution wasn’t for everybody." Gays were subjected to the whims of intrusive authorities, violence, and detention camps.
Seen as dangerous because of his writing, Arenas’ gay life made him easily vulnerable to persecution. He was confined for several years in prison and detention camps and then, in 1980, left Cuba in the mass Mariel emigration. He lived in New York City until his death in 1990, a suicide casualty of AIDS.
Schnabel, himself an artist of international renown, brings a painterly eye to his film. He finds beauty in early scenes of Oriente forests, repeated images of water (rain, the sea), the crumbling urban look of Havana. Even Arenas, nearly nude in a cramped solitary confinement cell, evokes a Michelangelo prisoner. And Schnabel captures in some sequences a sense of baroque theatricality–Johnny Depp in a brilliant cameo as a transvestite in prison who finds a way to assist Arenas; a wild party in an abandoned church with a hot air balloon looming in the background, a planned method of escape that has an unexpected outcome.
Overall Before Night Falls is episodic; it is irregularly paced and suffers from a lack of dramatic thrust. None of the many characters who come in and out of Arenas’ life are developed in any depth. Nor does Schnabel provide any meaningful sense of what Arenas’ writing was like, which leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of the film. (It’s the same problem that may explain why so few biographies of writers have been attempted on film.)
But Before Night Falls still manages to hold its center in a very strong performance by Javier Bardem as Arenas. Bardem catches a remarkable range of emotion, both broad and subtle, in his portrayal of the passion of a writer who refused to be silenced by the repressive Castro regime, his humiliation by those in authority, his poetic love of the homeland from which he had to flee, the dignity with which he carried himself as a gay man. There is a pervasive sense of loss, from the unwanted child to the abandoned lover. And somehow, through it all, a gentle and kind–if disillusioned–soul survived, even as the body was crushed by the scourge of his generation.