|Before Night Falls
Fancy free. Happy days for Pepe and Reinaldo (Di Stefano and Bardem) before things got much more difficult.
dir Julian Schnabel
Based on the memoirs of persecuted Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, this artistic film is much more than one man's amazing life story. It captures the soul of both the poet/novelist and the Latin culture in which he exists. Born in the countryside, Arenas (Bardem) never knew his father and moved to the city as a teen in the late 1950s just before Castro came to power. Awakened by the political possibilities, he joined the revolution only to have it turn on him due to his sexuality. After publishing one novel in Cuba, he spent much of his adult life being chased by authorities, imprisoned and brutally questioned ... until he eventually escaped the country in 1980's Mariel exodus.
Even if told straightforwardly, this would be a compelling story--the people surrounding Arenas have equally vivid stories, and they intersect with him in both loyalty and betrayal. But Schnabel isn't content to just tell a story, and he has made something much more remarkable, painting the intimate details of the culture and revealing Arenas' internal struggles in a fascinating, insightful way. Bardem's superb, Oscar-nominated performance is gutsy yet vulnerable--full of telling little details that open up the character for us. And yet, Schnabel never quite lets us all the way in, remaining slightly distant. For example, we never understand his friendships or romances, if Arenas ever really found a soulmate or whether he walked this difficult road essentially alone. Even though his good friend Lazaro (Martinez) stayed with him until his death in 1990 (and cowrote this film), we never glimpse the real nature of their relationship. This and other gaps in the story are a bit irritating. But Schnabel crafts a beautiful portrait of the Cuban culture (it was filmed in Mexico) and gets deep into Arenas' life and thoughts--including several terrific multiple-reality sequences. The star cameos are effective; most impressive is Depp's dual role--tricky, unusual, revelatory. Apparently, Schnabel planned to go back to painting after his first film (1996's Basquiat, another artist bio); this film confirms him as an artist on the big canvas too.