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Before Night Falls
2 reviews

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Movie Details

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Directed By
Julian Schnabel

Written By:
Julian Schnabel, Lazaro Gomez Carilles, Cunningham O'Keefe

Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Johnny Depp, Michael Wincott, Sean Penn, Hector Babenco, Najwa Nimri, Andrea Di Stefano, Andrea Di Stefano

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Before Night Falls (2000)
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Movie Review by Jarrod
May 27th, 2008

To date, director Julian Schnabel has only made three films; his last was the highly acclaimed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; his debut was a profile of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, in which David Bowie offered the definitive portrayal of Andy Warhol. Between those two films, he made 'Before Night Falls', a biopic about Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, persecuted by Castro's regime for his homosexuality and his defiance of draconian censorship laws. Javier Bardem earned an Oscar nomination for his extraordinary performance as Arenas, who develops a passion and talent for writing at an early age, and which brings him fame and fortune not to be found in the small rural village where he grows up. Arenas, as a child, wants to go out and join Castro's rebels and cheers as they capture Havana, and drive away the U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Many Cubans celebrated Castro's revolution with similar enthusiasm, but later found that under the pretext of eliminating counter-revolutionary influence, Castro would emerge as an even greater tyrant than the one he sent into exile. It is interesting to note that a secular Communist leader, derided by American Christians, holds the same fundamental views as they do on homosexuality. Arenas, who is first hit upon by playboy Pepe Malas (Andrea Di Stefano), eventually becomes enamored with the young and handsome Lazaro (Olivier Martinez). Arenas is arrested numerous times, escapes multiple times, tries to go to Miami, smuggles manuscripts out of Cuba to publishers abroad, and relies on the charity of his friends and colleagues to keep him safe and hidden, at least until the authorities convince him that he should compromise his integrity and do what they tell him to do. Johnny Depp displays stupendous versatility in two very different roles; first as a transvestite named Bon Bon, who can transport various objects by stashing them up his rectum, and then as a vicious warden, Lt. Victor, with a convincing Cuban accent.

Bardem makes us care about Arenas and his plight more or less from the start; we are happy when he leaves with a flood of other immigrants in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, which allowed him to flee to New York; he contracted AIDS and died in 1990, by committing suicide. It is a shame his career did not flourish as it should have without the oppressive limitations placed on him by the Cuban government. But he did gain international recognition, and his books enjoyed respect around the world, and were translated into many languages. 'Before Night Falls' tells a moving and ultimately tragic story. It details Arenas' relationships (and hints at his promiscuity), and delves into his terrible stint at El Morro Castle, which was transformed into a notorious prison facility. The film is graceful and elegant, beautifully shot, with parts of Arenas' work being read amidst footage of the revolutionary victory in 1959, which helps to provide a sense of documentary realism; Bardem reads bits of poetry and passages from Arenas' novels; he really bared his soul and frankly discussed his personal experiences in his writing.

Arenas' fate is like that of many other Cuban refugees, forced out of their homeland by the depraved regime that tries to control every aspect of their lives. Revolutionary romanticism is no longer feasible; Cubans are no longer under the illusion that Communism as practiced by Castro and his goons can elevate them and their country to a new plane of prosperity and existence. Some Hollywood figures (Oliver Stone, Danny Glover, and even Steven Spielberg) have met with Fidel and seem to admire him in one way or another; 'Before Night Falls', like Arenas himself, casts him and his policies in a wholly different and unflattering light. I do not expect Castro to keep the memory of Arenas alive, but I am sure he still means a lot to the average Cuban, a national hero of sorts.

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