Movies We Like
Before Night Falls
Oh, how I adore Javier Bardem. These past five years have been groundbreaking in his career, but before Eat Pray Love, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and No Country for Old Men, the Spanish heartthrob had a knack for landing roles which were not as stylish and required a gift for versatility. The roles that came before the year 2000 consisted mainly of two kinds of steamy romances: ones in which he co-starred and slobbered over Penelope Cruz or other leading ladies; and ones, such as The Ages of Lulu or Second Skin, where he played a gay love interest. In Before Night Falls, Bardem plays Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban writer with a "sensitivity for poetry," who later trades in verse for novels. Director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, [Lou Reed's] Berlin) seems to have a knack for biopic tales of artists, be it literary or fine arts. Directors who stick with the same subject matter in all their films usually fall into two categories: ones who are playing it safe and disappoint; and those who have a natural gift for bringing consistent, yet similar stories to the screen. Schnabel does the latter, and though he has less than six features under his belt, each of his works has an amazing cast of stars who were willing to take risks and play some very controversial roles under his direction. Look for an almost unrecognizable cameo by Sean Penn and one from pre-teen Diego Luna.
The film begins by going over Reinaldo’s childhood in Oriente, a place that is presented as poverty-stricken, yet rich with the wilderness and isolation that would remain a source of inspiration for the rest of his life. His gift for poetry was not only recognized by his teacher, but by everyone who stumbled upon his phrases and single words that were etched into trees. As an adolescent, he moves with his single mother (Olatz LÃ³pez Garmendia) to HolguÃn, where the nightlife and revolutionary energy causes him to run away from home with the hope of joining Castro's rebels. Before long, during college in Havana he is noticed by a group of literary enthusiasts who offer him a job working for the National Library. While roaming the streets he meets Pepe (Andrea Di Stefano), a socialite who brings nothing but trouble and remains his lover for many years, though they see other people. The sexual revolution was sort of a counter-attack to the oppression that Arenas and his fellow countrymen experienced. Homosexuality became a tool to fight back against the revolution that he once held sacred - one that sees artists as a threat and nontraditional behavior of any sort as something that holds back progress. Reinaldo ignores this and continues to enjoy his lifestyle and soon he meets and befriends Jose Lezama Lima, who becomes his mentor. Lima's encouragement and connections lead to Reinaldo being offered help with his first novel that he wishes to get published.
One day, while lounging on the beach with Pepe, a confrontation arises between Pepe and a group of kids that leads to a physical altercation between the two lovers. After fighting, Reinaldo realizes that one of the kids has taken his belongings and he approaches an officer for help. When they find the boy and his accomplices down the road, the two boys are aware of his local activities with Pepe and other men and they claim that they were molested by the young author. He is arrested and escapes from jail, set on living life as a fugitive until he can clear his name. Soon his whereabouts are discovered and he is taken to prison, where he remains for many years. His reputation as a writer spreads throughout the institution and he is called upon to write letters for fellow inmates who are unable to form their thoughts into words. This grants him a sort of protection and status within the prison, and soon he has the courage to begin writing again. When finished with his novel he decides to smuggle it out of the country in fear that it might be censored. He looks for help in Bon Bon (Johnny Depp), a drag queen who has a notorious rectum which is used to smuggle just about anything in and out of the prison. The work exposes Cuba's condition to the world and is published in France, causing hysteria and outrage in his homeland. He is approached by Lt. Victor (also Johnny Depp), who threatens him with a choice: he can either put his talents to use for their cause and renounce his published work or be erased from existence. Thus he takes the offer and is released shortly after.
Once freed, he realizes that the communist efforts have grown since his imprisonment. He and a group of old friends begin plotting their escape from Cuba. Once everything is set in order, their plans and whereabouts are discovered by Pepe, who steps in one final time to ruin Reinaldo's chances of survival. Once their plot is squandered, he turns to Lazaro (Olivier Martinez), a Frenchman who used to be his enemy and turns out to be not only his sole hope of escaping Cuba, but also the most loyal confidant he has ever encountered.
The film is based on the autobiography of Arenas with the same title. As you can imagine, certain details were left out or altered to make it more suitable for a film. This movie captures the spirit of revolution and despair, along with hope and inspiration. The cast is enormous and well-directed, and everything falls into place wonderfully. The film is narrated by Bardem - which is usually quite annoying in cinema - but unlike narration that simply tells you how someone is feeling, a lot of the narration here is Bardem reciting Arenas's work over archival footage of Cuba or tender moments onscreen. The entire cast, no matter how small the role, did an outstanding job, and I was pleased to know that Bardem was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. The only issue I had with the film was the language. The cast has a wide range of Spanish and French speakers who, I assume, had issues speaking English and heavy accents. Yet the key language spoken is English and the entire movie is subtitled for clarity. I personally would have been pleased with the cast speaking Spanish and French to begin with, but for all I know, this makes the movie easier to follow for some. Besides that, I don't have a single complaint. Before Night Falls is endearing, aggressive, and relevant—an outstanding work by a director whose promise as a filmmaker should not be overlooked.
Before Night Falls was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor (Javier Bardem).