THE ARTIST DYING young wouldn't seem that promising a theme for a biopic, yet painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel has now made two films on precisely that topic. His 1996 Basquiat profiled a friend and fellow NYC artist who succumbed to heroin addiction. Before Night Falls concerns a man he never met, gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, who reached these shores with the 1980 Mariel boat lift, then chose suicide over AIDS only 10 years later.
BEFORE NIGHT FALLS
directed by Julian Schnabel with Javier Bardem, Sean Penn, and Johnny Depp opens February 2 at Broadway Market
Hardly the stuff of inspiration and uplift, the movie is no feel-good My Left Foot or The Agony and the Ecstasy in its depiction of genius' overcoming obstacles. Indeed, insurmountable obstacles are just what Night acknowledges and attacks in its treatment of Cuba's communist regime—which began with such promise for Arenas and other intellectuals, then persecuted them for their dissent. It's Arenas' defiance and will that Schnabel celebrates in Night, a portrait of the artist as a young man in the worst of possible circumstances.
Accordingly, we greet the infant writer in squalid poverty, a dirt-eating child of the provinces, sitting naked in a muddy pit—a grave?—in his family compound. It's a well-chosen, ominous image, like the green swaying poplars that grope the mountainous skies of Arenas' boyhood. He's an unwashed campesino born in 1943, the spawn of illiterate peasants who begins carving his untutored rhymes on tree bark and later wins a scholarship to the city. Reaching '60s Havana in the era of postrevolutionary idealism and fervor, Arenas wins a state-sponsored writing competition. Still, an early mentor warns: "People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship."
LEFT UNSTATED IS how people that make art can also be dangerous to themselves, and Night does elide those aspects of Arenas' life story. Schnabel understands that multiplex audiences might not want to see exactly how Arenas acquired HIV and provides only brief, amusing glimpses of his trysts. (In his posthumously published autobiography, Before Night Falls, Arenas estimates he enjoyed over 5,000 sexual encounters.) The occasionally ragged Night is a film about writing and rebellion, in which sex is a means of self-expression to defy fascist orthodoxies. It chronicles how the determined individual can somehow preserve the freedom of his imagination even in the most oppressive conditions, like a page from Solzhenitsyn translated to the tropics.
A good deal of the movie's impact can be attributed to the central performance of Javier Bardem (familiar to some from Almod�'s High Heels and Live Flesh). His unshowy, non-fey, naturalistic portrayal of Arenas is the opposite of a star turn; he commands the lens by doing less, not more. The effect is of muscular, organic creativity—reflecting the poetic inspiration Arenas finds in the water, sky, and light of his forsaken homeland. (Remarkably, Schnabel manages to capture these qualities while shooting in Mexico, not Cuba, using saturated hues and careful compositions.) Lending marquee value to the cast, Sean Penn turns up briefly as a peasant, while Johnny Depp handles two disparate roles with aplomb.
Throughout, Schnabel draws on other Arenas works beyond his 1993 autobiography, allowing for occasional digressions and long passages of verse—alternating between Spanish and English, like the movie's dialogue. Perhaps the film's greatest accomplishment, as Castro's Cuba endures like some Cold War fossil, is to take such a proud, uncontrite fringe figure of the left and use his words and life to issue a conservative libertarian indictment of an authoritarian regime. Though they weren't what finally killed him, Arenas was haunted to the end by what he called "the same rhetoric, the same speeches, always the drums of militarism stifling the rhythm of poetry and life."