February 1, 2001

New Arenas Of Thought

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When you have a gripping memoir, a magnificent story, and a tragic ending, it is very tempting to make a movie about those very things. It has been done many times, but only once in a while does it really work. For example, Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt was an unbelievable book, but the movie was simply not as gripping. It is a norm for people to say that “the movie is good, but the book was just so much better.” While that is often the truth, Before Night Falls, a movie based on Reinaldo Arenas’s memoir with the same title, directed by Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) and starring Spanish actor and soon-to-be-star Javier Bardem, is certainly based on a stunning book, but is unforgettable as a movie.

Julian Schnabel, who has been a famous artist since the early eighties, made his directorial debut in 1996 with Basquiat. It was not only a great film, but was additionally impressive since it was Schnabel’s very first film. In his second attempt with Before Night Falls, he has proven himself not to be a one-hit-wonder, capturing not only the imagery of Arenas’ powerful language, but also drawing the story along with such a sense of passion, that it seemed like a dream one could only wish to have.

Reinaldo Arenas is born in Cuba and grows up in a house full of “angry women,” as he explains. He has “the sensitivity for poetry” at a very young age, and dreams of continuing with this passion. His youth is poverty-stricken, and as a teenager he moves to a larger city. After a short stint with the revolutionaries in Cuba, he attends university and studies writing. He enters a contest and placees second, although his novel is first-place quality. The reason: he writes about his disillusionment with Castro.

Arenas’ writings become very popular, as his first book is published and receives rave reviews. However, his literature, as well as that of others, lead to a very brutal time in Cuba, and eventually lands him in jail where he is tortured and locked up on numerous occasions. Eventually, he flees Cuba and ends up in New York, where he continues writing until he is suddenly struck by the HIV virus and later dies of AIDS in 1990.

Javier Bardem is as brilliant as Arenas. We first meet him when he is reading his first novel to a jury of literaries. The amazing thing about Bardem is that he has the masculinity of a boxer, yet portrays the sensitivity of Arenas brilliantly. At first, we know he is homosexual only through certain movements and glances, which makes his rebellious spirit and passionate mind strike an interesting balance. Too often in Hollywood gay males and females are portrayed as either total “queens” or totally “butch.” Hollywood should know better perhaps.

As the story unfolds, Bardem handles himself very elegantly, but we soon see that he is also a very sexual person, sleeping with almost everyone he encounters. This was, however, part of life back then, since homosexuality was pushed to an extreme in a time of turmoil.

Furthermore, Schnabel’s attention to nature, Arenas’ love, is fantastic. The overall color of the movie is like a painting, since it seems very dark, yet soft and beautiful. He made a dreamy picture of a harsh life, and makes the medium of film true art, in which emotions don’t stem from plot alone, but also from sound and images. The colors are very reminiscent of Schnabel’s art, since he uses a lot of earthy tones that still compell a great sense of light and power in the viewer.

One scene in particular was absolutely captivating. While in jail, Arenas becomes known as the letter writer for all the inmates in return for smokes. In order to request his services, inmates would tie round soap balls to a string and swing them back and forth. In one scene, at least a hundred of them are going at a time, and the light and movement this creates is just breathtaking.

Moreover, also featured in the film are Johnny Depp (Chocolat) as both a transvestite prisoner with a “special” talent and a police officer, and Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking) as a Cuban Farmer who gives young Arenas a ride to the rebel camp. The rest of the cast features some actors from Basquiat and other talented and very interesting faces.

This is truly a gem of a film. It makes you laugh, cry, shiver, and cheer. What else can you ask of a movie? Let’s hope it hits Ithaca. Otherwise, give Schnabel a call, and I am sure he will send all of us to New York for a private screening. Seriously, please see this film and read the book. Yes, BOTH! You will see that Schnabel is a genius, Bardem is a great actor, and Depp is one hot woman!

Archived article by Nino Linsmayer