Before Night Falls
His brother's a film director, his mother a renowned actress, heck—even his sister has written a well-received cookbook. Coming from such gifted stock, and possessing an impressive resumé with top Spanish directors, it is almost surprising that Javier Bardem is just now making his U.S. debut. The Spaniard portrays gay Cuban exile Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls. The debut film of painter Julian Schnabel brought the short life of his artworld contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat, to the big screen. This time Schnabel sets his sights on a writer. Reinaldo Arenas was a talented poet and novelist. Before Night Falls opens in his optimistic early days, a sensual romp through pre-Castro Cuba when Havana was booming and the revolution of choice was sexual.
Life soon soured for Arenas under Castro's intolerant regime. He was scorned and repeatedly jailed for his active homosexuality. (Johnny Depp flaunts two excellent cameos in this section, as a jail guard and an enticing transvestite.) Arenas eventually got off the island, escaping to the states and spending his final years in New York City. Arenas never recovered from Castro's bankrupting of the revolutionary promise, blaming him for a ruined life and ransacked country. Arenas committed suicide in the midst of a battle with AIDS.
Before Night Falls testifies to Schnabel's directorial maturity. Basquiat was a decent, unusually conventional treatment of an iconic painter by a notorious one. This film develops more of its own style. Schnabel presents a dreamily evocative series of sequences in which image is often secondary to text, but, just as often, highly compatible with Arenas's verse. Symbols recur smartly, and contrasting cityscapes in various stages of growth and decline (New York and Havana) work well.
Bardem, however, is the real star. He effortlessly cycles through a range of emotions, vivifying the genius and persecution of Arenas. Although he claims no intention of taking Hollywood by storm—as have countrymen Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz—Bardem wouldn't encounter much difficulty doing so.