Film Review #120: Before Night Falls
Director: Julian Schnabel
Cast: Javier Bardem, Oliver Martinez, Johnny Depp
Before Night Falls opens on an apparently simple scene set in Cuba’s northwest Oriente Province, 1943. The camera’s eye gazes skyward as sun glints through deep green forest canopy far overhead – lovely, with a slight gentle wind – then sweeps down to a tiny year-old boy, sitting naked in a mud pit. The camera pulls back and up, away from this make-shift playpen isolated in a field, some ways from a shack. No one’s nearby this pit that’s open to sun and rain. In a single fluid arc, this opening establishes a twin image – the imagination and freedom that by our nature we seek, inspired and unlocked in the natural world, against a harsh, essential solitude. Our eyes in the shimmering tree tops, we sit trapped in the blunt mud.
The film’s opening, so painterly in handling these prototypic images, comes courtesy of writer-director Julian Schnabel, who leaves his painting every few years to make a film about another artist. Here, the naked toddler left in the pit by his young mother while she works in the fields is the eventually – against all odds – prolific dissident Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (played by various Schnabel offspring and then as an adult by the great Javier Bardem). Schnabel wrote the script, based on Arenas’ memoir of the same title, with the writer’s close friend Lázaro Gómez-Carriles (played onscreen by Oliver Martinez), to whom Arenas dictated the manuscript when he became too ill with AIDS to type.
Previously Schnabel made the cult favorite Basquiat (1996/DVD 2002) about graffiti artist and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (aka Samo). His 1980s prominence in Manhattan’s art world overlaps Arenas’ sojourn there; the writer landed in New York via the 1980 Mariel boatlift by which 125,000 Cubans left their nation. (After a long period of harassment and friction with Castro’s regime partly stemming from being openly gay, Arenas was able to secure exit permission by declaring himself homosexual and therefore undesirable.) Both men died in 1988, Basquiat by heroin overdose, Arenas by a drug overdose suicide that the film portrays as assisted.
For a first film, Basquiat was an embarrassment of ensemble acting riches, starting with Jeffrey Wright’s remarkable screen debut in the title role. His scenes with David Bowie (still the best Andy Warhol portrayal short of Warhol himself), as these two wary confidantes talk over painting and fame, are unmatched. Basquiat also commented explicitly on celebrity commercialization through art critic and self-proclaimed Basquiat discoverer Rene Ricard (Canadian actor Michael Wincott, who appears in all three of Schnabel’s films), whose voice-over narration comes directly from Ricard’s 1981 writings in ArtForum.
Wincott returns as Cuban writer Herberto Zorilla Ochoa in Before Night Falls, in which Schnabel addresses the fate of dissident art and lifestyles under Castro’s revolution. Zorilla, a mentor to Arenas, was tried in the 1960s for violating the penal code’s Article 243 – forbidding assembly of more than three persons – because he had hosted a reading in his home of his own and some friends’ writings. When he publicly renounced his own work, Zorilla’s wife leapt to her death off a balcony. Shortly after this, Arenas – he had published one book in Cuba, winning a national honorable mention – began smuggling his own manuscripts to France with a painter who admired his work and had sought him out during a visit from Paris. Eventually arrested in 1973 on the pretext of molesting some boys at a beach, Arenas was sentenced to prison for “ideological deviation” and publishing abroad without permission. Escaping prison once, Arenas then served almost two years in the infamous El Morro. (Johnny Depp’s dual cameo roles – as the blond queen Bon Bon and the prison’s sadistic Lt. Victor – are incisive special treats.)
Arenas was extremely active in 1980s literary New York, as he had been in Cuba. Before Night Falls concentrates on his deeply deprived youth (once he survives that mud pit, his grandfather chops down the trees on whose trunks he carves poems when his teacher tells the family he has a special gift); his early years of writing (mentoring older writers coached his efforts and tutored him in world literature); his part in the burgeoning gay scene in Havana and its collision course with Castro’s regime; his grueling imprisonment (an acquaintance who worked as a psychologist in Cuba tells me Schnabel’s portrayal of El Morro doesn’t go far enough); his efforts to leave Cuba and his eventual relocation in New York with his enduring friend Lázaro, who nurses him in his final days. Arenas had a long, on-again-off-again relationship with a wealthy Errol Flynn look-alike with a white convertible to match, Pepe Malas (Andrea di Stefano), whose various repeated betrayals thread through the story.
Though cinematically stronger because of it, Schnabel’s film also leaves a good deal out, including positions Arenas held in journalism and in editing two Cuban magazines, that substantiate the international reputation Arenas gained, especially in Europe, before he ever left Cuba. Published three years after Arenas’ death, his memoir Before Night Falls was named one of that year’s ten best books by the New York Times. Right now, amazon.com lists 74 Arenas titles in print, many re-issued since the film’s release.
Javier Bardem was Oscar-nominated for his performance as Reinaldo Arenas and picked up a Special Jury Prize in Venice, among a raft of critical kudos. Actually not Bardem’s first portrayal of a gay man – in 1999, he appeared in a far more overtly sexual Spanish film, Second Skin – this role is more remarkable for his eerie recreation of Arenas, with whom he shared little physical resemblance. Besides a splendid commentary track – Schnabel plus Bardem, Gómez-Carilles, both DPs and composer Carter Burwell – the DVD also contains a clip of a 1983 interview with Arenas when he was 40.
In the long twilight of Castro’s presidency, reassessments and remembrances can only accelerate. We can liken Before Night Falls to Jonathan Demme’s hugely under-appreciated documentary, The Agronomist (2003/DVD 2005), about assassinated Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique, an early Aristide supporter who cooled amid the rising corruption, violence and dissembling of his hero’s regime. No part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on hardened positions, of course – the US embargo on Cuba has also meant that the films of Cuban master director Humberto Solas have reached US screens slowly when at all.
Schnabel’s third film opens in the US in December, having taking Best Director at this springs’ Cannes. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly recounts how a high profile French fashion magazine editor endured a paralyzing stroke in the mid-90s.
An abbreviated version of this review appeared in today’s Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.