Before Night Falls

sleeping dogRated: R
Javier Bardem

I’m sure the life story of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas is mesmerizing on the page, but this film in no way does it justice. Before Night Falls is a confusingly written and edited presentation that is hindered tremendously by its heavily accented star Javier Bardem. I found it an agony to get through.

Arenas was a homosexual writer who comes into his own in the 1960’s just as Castro takes power. But the story extends from the late forties when Arenas was a child until his death from AIDS in 1990 in New York City. He grew up on his grandfather’s farm in one of Cuba’s provinces in a household of women and this is where he first develops yearnings to become a poet. By the time he’s 20, he has procured a respectable job in Havana’s National Library and his first book is being considered for publication. At the same time, Arenas enjoys life exploring the city’s gay subculture, but Castro’s totalitarian regime soon casts a pall over the island and a lifestyle that was once tolerated is now under active attack. This becomes fodder for a second novel that is smuggled out of the country and published in France. Arenas is thrown into prison for two years on false charges that he molested some boys. He gains his release and in 1980 travels to the United States via the Mariel Boat Lift, Castro’s clever ruse to dump all his unwanteds.

Arenas’ persecution and tragic decline, without ever having saw his works appreciated, is heart-rending to be sure but I don’t think director Julian Schnabel has produced a cogent study of it. There are many scenes depicting Arenas’ hallucinations or daydreams that are not set up properly, thus they’re confusing or simply unnecessarily redundant. And there are other scenes where you just don’t know where he is or what’s going on. He wallops a fellow in the head with a watermelon and the very next scene is a Mardi Gras like dance number oblivious to what just happened. An inner tube trip to Miami ends up with Arenas still in Cuba and it takes awhile to figure out what’s going on. Bardem narrates throughout and I’m positive much confusion lies with missed dialogue because of his heavy Spanish accent which makes him sound as if he has a mouth full of marbles. Sadly this was the case throughout the film and it was hard to keep interested.

Also features Johnny Depp in a duel role as a transvestite who smuggles Arenas’ work out of prison and that of a prison Lieutenant. Sean Penn appears in a cameo.

Lotta says: If the subject matter is of interest to you, you might want to read a book about his life and skip this film.

Reviewed 1/5/01