Before Night Falls

Directed by Julian Schnabel
Starring: Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, some language and brief violence.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
January 30, 2001

The trend of films about writers continues (typewriters and all), this time telling the story of an actual writer who lived an extraordinary life -- one where the most compelling moments are not in the act of writing itself.

Reinaldo Arenas (played in Before Night Falls by Javier Bardem) was born in Cuba with no father around. His mother (Olatz Lopez Garmendia) raised him at her parents' house, which was mostly occupied by women. He was an adolescent boy when Castro began the Revolution, just discovering his homosexuality and skill for writing.

His first novel was successfully published, but by the time he finished his second, the Communist regime became less tolerant of artists, especially gay ones, and he found himself unable to publish. Both his personal life and his professional life had to be hidden from view. He lived in obscure poverty, and eventually in jail, while his smuggled works were hugely successful in the free world, which he would ultimately join only to commit suicide during the last stages of AIDS.

It's not exactly the feel-good kind of story one sees in Finding Forrester or Almost Famous. It's the story of an artist who really suffered for his work, as told by another artist: Julian Schnabel. The painter became a director in 1996 when he filmed a biopic of the late street artist Jean Michel Basquiat.

Arenas led a life that few writers could even imagine, and Schnabel's film lends it a mythic quality, as if it didn't exist in the same universe as ours. The film freely switches between English and Spanish, even though all the characters are "supposed to" be speaking the tongue of Cuba at all times. Bardem adds to this surreal biography an intense performance that spans a quarter-century of hardship.

Before Night Falls, named for the memoir that Arenas published posthumously, is not an easy film to watch, and can be confusing. (For example, Johnny Depp plays two very different parts: a transvestite prisoner and a prison officer -- within a few minutes of each other.) However, it is one of the most powerful films of the past year, and should not be missed.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Before Night Falls (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Before Night Falls (2000) -- VHS
Before Night Falls (2000) -- DVD
Before Night Falls, a memoir by Reinaldo Arenas -- Paperback


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Review © 2001 Matt Heffernan