December 25, 2000 -- "Before Night Falls" gives us a fascinating glimpse into life in Cuba and why it is no paradise for artists. Like last year's "Buena Vista Social Club" it takes us to a place seldom seen in the movies.
The story is about Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. He wrote 10 novels and over 20 books, despite incredible hardships, political persecution, and a life cut short by AIDS. Based on Arenas' writing and interviews, it follows him from birth in rural poverty, to his death in exile in New York City. Although this film doesn't get as deeply into the Cuban soul as "Buena Vista" did, it is very revealing as to the harsh political conditions in Havana for the active art and homosexual communities there.
Arenas fought with the rebels against the Batista regime, and was, for a short time, one of the leading literary lights of Cuba. Unfortunately, art is one of the first casualties of any dictatorship, regardless if it calls itself left wing or right wing. Artists are notorious for flaunting social conventions and they generally refuse to be censored. When his second book is censored, Arenas managed to get an uncensored manuscript smuggled out of the country and have it published in France. Naturally, the government did not like that, and he was a marked man for the remainder of his days in Cuba.
The movie, directed by painter and sculptor Julian Schnabel ("Basquiat"), includes a remarkable depiction of Arenas' imprisonment. In prison, Arenas used his writing skills to write letters for other prisoners. He was also able to write another book while in prison and came up with an ingenious way to smuggle it out of prison, using the unique abilities of a gay prisoner, Bon Bon (Johnny Depp of "Sleepy Hollow," he also plays Lieutenant Victor in the film).
There are also attempts to escape Cuba in an inner tube and in a hot air balloon. Most of all, the movie shows Arenas' passion for writing and his heroic attempts to keep publishing, despite imprisonment and threats from the government. It also shows how little privacy there was in Cuba due to a heavy police presence and a network of informants. It seemed a lot like the old Soviet Union. The story of Arenas is a cautionary tale for those who argue that regulation of matters relating to sexual preferences is a legitimate role for government in a free society.
After his escape to the U.S., his life was not much better. The difference, Arenas said, is that in the U.S. you can at least complain about the government, and the injustices of our political system. He also notes that being both gay and anti-Castro didn't exactly get him into the in crowd. Javier Bardem does a great job playing Reinaldo Arenas. He shows a wide range of emotions from joy to terror as he goes through a remarkable life odyssey. Andrea Di Stefano does a solid job playing Pepe Malas, the man who introduces Arenas to the gay side of Havana. Sean Penn of "Sweet and Lowdown" plays Cuco Sanchez in the film.
The film does a good job of getting us inside Cuban life, and the cinematography, by Xavier Pérez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas is excellent. The story, however, seemed to be a bit disjointed and it really lost steam after Arenas leaves Cuba. It would make a lot more sense in a second viewing, and it would make more sense for those familiar with Arenas' life and works before seeing the film. Although much of the dialogue of the film is in English, there is also a fair portion in Spanish with English subtitles. This film rates a C+.
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