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[whitespace] 'Before Night Falls'
Rocky Path: Andrea Di Stefano (left) and Javier Bardem fight prejudice in 'Before Night Falls.'

Flight From Cuba

Julian Schnabel's hazy style doesn't illuminate life of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas

By Richard von Busack

AS A DIRECTOR, painter Julian Schnabel lacks everything except the quality to put arresting photographs up on a screen. Schnabel works on a dreamy, semiconscious level, but he doesn't shape his material in his films. Basquiat, Schnabel's last film, had one really memorable moment. It was a scene in which the doomed New York artist (Jeffrey Wright, recently very juicy in Shaft) got stoned on marijuana and went for a leisurely bike ride around the Lower East Side. After seeing Schnabel's latest, Before Night Falls, I realized that the earlier scene in Basquiat stood out because it epitomized Schnabel's hazy style.

Before Night Falls is epic, rounding up some 30 years in the life of the persecuted homosexual poet Reinaldo Arenas, played by the Spanish film star Javier Bardem. Arenas, born fatherless and dirt-poor in eastern Cuba, grew to early fame and then infamy. The Cuban government locked him up for two years for counterrevolutionary activities--namely, being gay. Arenas wrote a novel in prison, which he smuggled out for overseas publication. When, in 1980, Cuba decided to release a number of its outcasts from Mariel Harbor, the poet faced a chance to leave Cuba. This chance for exile was not the end of Arenas' troubles.

Before Night Falls features a flashy pair of cameos by Johnny Depp, in a double role: first, in drag; second, as the cop in an interrogation scene that looks like improv gone awry. Sean Penn also stops by, made up as a Cuban peasant and looking ridiculous. The Penn episode sums up the movie. His anecdotal arrival has no purpose, no real bearing on Arenas' personal life or career. Before Night Falls, shot in Mexico for the most part, depends heavily on the lead performance by Bardem. If you don't buy him, there's nothing here to buy.

Bardem is a handsome devil. His nose is broken in just the right place, and when he flares his nostrils, one remembers Victor Mature back when Mature was just so embarrassingly sensual. When an actor who looks as good as Bardem--playing a Latin poet, yet--can't bring any inherent sensuality to this part, you can only blame the director.

Arenas' male lovers all come across like chums. Schnabel seems to have thought that discretion was better for such matters. However, in the Midnight Express sequences, the director goes full throttle, during scenes of the solitary confinement and homoerotic viciousness of the military police. Before Night Falls serves as a reminder of Castro's totalitarianism, which we of the left would like to overlook in the interests of calming relations with Cuba. Fidel's Stalinism is memorialized in a show trial of an author named Zorilla; in the background we see a portrait of Castro above the caption "History Will Absolve Me." As a guide to Arenas, however, Before Night Falls is rambling, loose and superficial. I never had an inkling of what Arenas was really about until one of his poems was read right before the end credits.


Before Night Falls (R; 133 min.), directed by Julian Schnabel, written by Cunnigham O'Keefe, Lázaro Gómez Carriles and Schnabel, photographed by Xavier Pérez Grobet and starring Javier Bardem, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the January 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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