Most films seem as though they were concocted by a committee whose insights don't extend beyond marketing. But the Hollywood committee doesn't exist that would say: Let's make a movie about a little-known, gay Cuban writer who suffered imprisonment and AIDS before killing himself. As well received as Reinaldo Arenas' posthumously published autobiography, "Before Night Falls," was by critics, his story does not translate into smash box-office. Fortunately, Julian Schnabel didn't worry about such things when he made his idiosyncratic and exhilarating adaptation of Arenas' book.
The key to this lively film's success is that it was directed by an artist and deals with the creative process from, as it were, the imaginative inside. Painter-turned-filmmaker Schnabel is no stranger to celebrating artistic personalities, including his own; he has long been a large and tempting critical target because his outsized success in the New York art world of the 1980s seemingly was matched only by his outsized ego.
Schnabel's debut film, 1996's Basquiat, was a self-aggrandizing, cinematically pedestrian portrait of the director's friend, the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, as a genius symbolically martyred by a society that did not understand him. (Forgive my dry tear ducts when it comes to millionaire artists complaining about the nefarious workings of the art market.) In both aesthetic and thematic terms, "Before Night Falls" shows a tremendous advance.
Schnabel's two films are linked by the notion that innovative, edgy artists are destroyed by the conformist cultures in which they live -- and it doesn't much matter whether the pressure comes from capitalism or communism. Both films are underpinned by hyper-romantic notions of the artist battling society, but "Before Night Falls" succeeds for at least a couple of reasons: the compelling interweaving of Arenas' literary and sexual development with the Cuban revolution, and the quantum progress in Schnabel's filmmaking skills.
"Before Night Falls" seems like it was made intuitively. The camerawork, editing and overall texture shift as the story does. There's a visceral, almost mythic feeling in the opening scenes of Arenas' childhood, a literally gay sense of abandon once Arenas the young man discovers Havana nightlife, and, after Arenas leaves Cuba as part of the Mariel boatlift in 1980, a grimly claustrophobic concluding segment in a New York that does not seem to extend much beyond the then-underappreciated writer's apartment walls.
It's not unusual for shifts in location to prompt minor shifts in technical approach, but Schnabel pushes the envelope. It will strike many viewers as choppy, uneven and pretentious in both technical and scripting terms. It's all those things and more. Some of Schnabel's out-there tactics work, and some don't, but when he scores, he scores big time. For instance, there's a remarkably concise transition from a shot of Arenas on a boat leaving Cuba, rain beating down on him as if he were being baptized, to a shot of him joyfully riding in a convertible in New York City, with snow falling on his now-receptive mug. It's such a powerful jump cut it may leave you breathless.
The film's stunt casting is likewise hit or miss. Sean Penn is merely distracting in a brief bit as a wagon driver, but Johnny Depp's seemingly gimmicky double cameo fits nicely into the film's exploration of human sexuality, with Depp essaying both an outrageous drag queen and a supermacho Cuban military man. There's a lot of sex in the Cuban air, and the promiscuous Arenas hungers for the freedom to check much of it out. His quest for sexual liberation puts him at odds with a revolutionary regime that proves to be quite reactionary when it comes to boys who just want to have fun.
What truly makes "Before Night Falls" emotionally cohesive is Schnabel's go-for-broke commitment to his subject and the compelling central performance by newly minted Oscar nominee Javier Bardem as Arenas. Film buffs will recognize Bardem from Pedro Almodóvar's Live Flesh and J.J. Bigas Luna's Jamon Jamon, but here he plays down his masculine swagger and play up Arenas' more effeminate personality without seeming forced -- the actor totally inhabits the role. With the sexy Bardem mouthing Arenas' call for a sexual revolution, who can say no?