Johnny DeppSpanishSean PennJavier Bardem
Before Night Falls
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Julian Schnabel
Writer: Cunningham O'Keefe, Lazaro Gomez Carriles, Julian Schnabel, Reynaldo Arenas, Jana Bokova
Actor: Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Diego Luna, Lia Chapman, Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Patricia Reyes Spindola, Michael Wincott, Hector Babenco, Andrea Di Stefano, Santiago Magill, Manolo Garcia, Olivier Martinez, Manuel Gonzalez, Maurice Compte, Claudette Maille, John Ortiz, Vincent Laresca, Najwa Nimri, Francisco Gattorno, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Rene Pereyra, Johnny Depp, Alfredo Villa, Diahnne Abbott, Zulema Cruz
Language: English, Spanish [often], Russian [really?], French [one scene]
Keywords: Oscar-nominated
Country: USA
Format: 133 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 14 November 2011
I got a bit bored, I'm afraid. However it was Javier Bardem's breakthrough Oscar-nominated role and I'm stunned that the director's heterosexual.
It's a biopic based on the autobiography of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), which posthumously made the New York Times list of the ten best books of 1993 and has been adapted into both this movie and an opera. Wow. Arenas was born into complete and utter poverty in Cuba and at first supported Castro's revolution, only to discover later that the regime was hostile towards both writers and homosexuals. He was imprisoned, although he managed to avoid torture and execution. Eventually he escaped to America, only to catch AIDS.
I'm sure the book is great. Read that instead.
This movie shows great artistry and sympathy with its subject, but unfortunately it also never makes him particularly interesting. It doesn't unfold like a drama. It's more like a long, time-lapsed documentary with good acting. In fairness it paints its backgrounds very well, so for instance we feel we've been shown something of what it was like to live under Castro's half-arsed totalitarianism and the film portrays Arenas's homosexuality with such empathy that I was astonished to find that the director wasn't gay too. (That's a compliment.) Most of this I watched placidly enough, but when Bardem reached America I looked at the clock and was horrified to find that there was still another half-hour to go. It was a struggle to force myself to pay attention towards the end, I'm afraid.
The homosexuality is amazing, though. I don't mean by that explicit man-on-man sex scenes, of which you won't see any here, but instead something far subtler and more difficult. What this film does is to mimic the homosexual "male gaze". This is usually used of movies whose editing and cinematography is leering at women, made by men for men, but there's a homosexual equivalent of this too. Tom Ford's A Single Man does it, for instance, albeit with beautiful elegance. This film recreates that. You see through gay eyes. You feel gay feelings. It's as if the world is behind a homosexual filter, with women being distant shadows, while beautiful men everywhere you look.
This is so all-encompassing that I assumed the director was simply expressing himself... but apparently not. Julian Schnabel has three children by his first wife, two more by his second and according to wikipedia is currently in a relationship with the lady who adapted her own novel into the screenplay for Schnabel's film Miral last year. This particular film stars his second wife as Arenas's mother and has bit roles for all of his children. This is not a man who's unfamiliar with heterosexuality. What might be significant though is that Schnabel's also a painter, whose work sells for six-figure sums. His paintings are in the collections of museums around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, Madrid, London and Paris. He recently had an exhibition in Toronto and took the entire fifth floor of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
In other words, he can think visually. He knows the power of images, including moving ones, and it would seem that he can use them as a window on the soul. It's also worth noting that he'd be Oscar-nominated for Best Director for his following film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
The acting's good, but I'm not convinced I'd have given Javier Bardem that Oscar nomination. He's excellent, no question, but this material is pure Oscar bait, isn't it? Long, a bit dull, impeccable artistic credentials, lots of dialogue in Spanish as well as English, historically authentic hero who struggles heroically under totalitarian oppression and catches AIDS. Uh-huh. Nevertheless Bardem does create a detailed and specific characterisation that apparently involved spending two hours a day for one and a half months with Arenas's surviving partner, Lazaro Gomez Carilles, studying how Arenas walked and talked. He takes Arenas's homosexuality itself on a journey of character development. The Arenas of this film would deny that he's an intellectual. He's tentative, gentle and slightly timid. You'll like him. More importantly, to quote the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante...
"It's the work of a chameleon. I met Bardem when Schnabel wanted him to make the movie and I thought, no no, you've got it completely wrong. He's a tall man with a thick Castilian accent. And I don't know how he did it - he imitated Reinaldo in ways he couldn't have known about - his voice, that languid way he walked, keeping his arms stiff at his sides. I've seen photographs of Bardem and thought it was Reinaldo. It really is uncanny; there's no other word for it."
The other actors, to my surprise, include Johnny Depp twice. I didn't realise. Every so often I'd think "that looks a bit like Johnny Depp", but I was more correct than I knew. He also gets the film's funniest scene, with a superhuman rectum.
Is this a good film? Not for me, it wasn't. It's languid to the point of extinguishing its own drama and the American final act is boring. However I can't deny that a lot of talent went into this film and that it's taking us into all kinds of worlds with sensitivity and an empathy that even now I still find hard to credit. Julian Schnabel is clearly a director with many gifts and I'm sure that on the right project, he'd be magical. There's quite a lot of magic even here, actually. If nothing else, it's good to see a movie that shows us Cuba with such measured integrity.