From the very first minute, “Before Night Falls” surrounds you with the lush green forests of rural Cuba and captures you in a world saturated with bright colors, poverty, friendship, Castro, homosexuality and the Caribbean rhythm. The director Julian Schnabel (of “Basquiat”) concocts the rich mixture of themes to create a human and historically informed biography of the Cuban author Reinardo Arenas, played by Javier Bardem.
“Before Night Falls” traces the life of Arenas, who fled his homeland in 1980 because of Castro’s persecution of artists and homosexuals. His life begins in a rural village with a large family and a beautiful mother who has been abandoned by her husband. Carving poetry into trees, Arenas’ talent is recognized even in these early days but is submerged by the poverty around him. He soon joins the tail end of Castro’s revolution, riding the wave of new opportunities into Havana.
In the heart of a country beating with the excitement of the revolution, Arenas finds both creative energy and sexual liberty. He befriends other homosexuals, engendering a part of the sexual revolution and counterculture occurring in parallel to the political one. At the same time, prominent writers recognize his talent and offer him advice for the first and only book Arenas published in his own country, “Singing from the Well.”
Ironically, the Castro revolution turns on Arenas in the late 1960s as the regime begins to persecute artists and homosexuals. Arenas refuses to relinquish his two identities and continues to write, whether in hiding or in the notorious El Morro prison. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, he has acquaintances smuggle messages and manuscripts out of the country, while he himself desperately attempts to flee from Cuba, both by an inner tube and a hot air balloon.
Arenas finally escapes Cuba during the Mariel Harbor exodus of 1980, which is when Castro “allowed” homosexuals, criminals and mental patients to leave the country. The writer gladly boards the boat of exiles to arrive in New York City, only to be welcomed by an impoverished life of struggling with AIDS.
Despite the tragic occurrences throughout Arenas’ life and the circumstances of his death, “Before Night Falls” does not leave the audience with pity, or uncontrollable tears or a headache from wondering if the world can be saved. It is neither another propaganda film deprecating Castro’s regime, nor is it a Cuban adaptation of the starving writer theme. The film is instead a celebration, a celebration of life and of the power of poetic and narrative creation. Laughter accompanies Arenas in every step of his journey, and the movie represents such an aspect of his character in its humorous moments.
The film works as a pastiche of narrative and imageries, creating the aura of a documentary with its flashbacks, historical footage, an interview and excerpts from Arenas’ poems and books. The fact that it does not have a spelled out plot, but unfolds in the style of a free-flowing mind makes it difficult to follow, especially for those who are not familiar with Cuban history or society. Arenas’ upward movement from a peasant boy in one scene to a young man riding in a convertible along the chic streets of Havana, for example, leaves one wondering about the unmentioned gap. Because the film picks out certain moments of Arenas’ life to expound on, it remains to be questioned whether it leaves out some of the more violent and depressing times of Arenas’ life for the sake of an encouraging an overall message like that of “Life is Beautiful.”
No matter how confusing certain moments in the film may be, “Before Night Falls” holds the attention of the audience through its convincing characters, beautiful cinematography and inviting music. The roaring flood, the green blue sea, the lush green trees and the warm red and yellow of the Havana houses carve the space for Bardem to deliver a compelling performance, one that earned him a nomination to this year’s Academy Awards in the Best Actor category. The soundtrack fills the transitions between the dialogues, and the lyrics of the songs mostly speak for themselves. There seems to have been a powerful fusion of creative energies in the making of the movie itself. Perhaps Bardem the actor and Schnabel the director-painter understood Arenas’s artistic energy as if it was their own.
The audience may also want to look out for the well-disguised faces of Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, even though they only have a few minutes on screen and do not add too much to the movie besides their Hollywood oriented names. Nevertheless, they fit comfortably into the Cuban scene, perhaps too much so for Penn, whose overdone accent renders his speech practically unintelligible. Johnny Depp, who has a double role as the prison transvestite and the interrogating officer, offers an interesting twist to the film.
“Before Night Falls” as a film, and as Arenas’ own 1993 memoir, represents the triumph of freedom of expression, the very thing that Arenas fought for through poverty, the Castro regime and AIDS. The final scene of his death is not tragic because he has completed his mission. It is an ending that leaves the audience bound in its seats until the credits have rolled through and the lights have come on, grasping the last flashes of Arenas’ life before they go back into the reality of New Haven.