Before Night Falls

Before Night Falls is the harrowing story of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990). Arenas was a homosexual in Cuba during Castro's reign, a very bad time for gays. If anything, Before Night Falls serves as a good introduction to Arenas' life. Writer/director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) adapted Arenas' memoirs (published posthumously in 1993), and combined them with some of Arenas' other works and some remembrances from other people. This film comes highly anticipated, after winning the Grand Jury Prize and the 2000 Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 2000 Venice Film Festival for actor Javier Bardem.

The movie starts with Arenas' (Bardem, The Dancer Upstairs, Live Flesh) childhood. He grew up on a farm where his teachers quickly realized he had a talent for poetry. He later joined the Revolution and moved to Havana, where he attended The University of Havana. There he began many relationships with men, including Pepe Malas (Andrea Di Stefano, Almost Blue, The Phantom of the Opera). Later, Arenas landed in jail after being falsely accused of molestation. Even in jail, he was able to write, and eventually made his way to America, where he lived the last decade of his life.

Bardem's job as Arenas is amazing. He easily makes the transformation from idealistic young man to an older, AIDS-afflicted man living in New York. Johnny Depp (Blow, Chocolat) and Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown, Up at the Villa) show up, although both are nearly unrecognizable. Arenas does have a harrowing life, especially in his latter days in Cuba, and Bardem's performance shows his waning exuberance and growing disillusionment with Cuba. Bardem's Arenas seems innocent and almost happy-go-lucky, although he is certainly aware of the danger he is constantly in.

This movie is best suited for those unfamiliar with Arenas. It is essentially a biography of events, with little insight as to why Arenas was who he was. Except for one or two excerpts, there is also little of his work in the movie. He meets other Cuban literary figures, but the movie does not identify any of them. The only way to know who they are is to know beforehand that Arenas met them in the first place. One reason may be that while he was a prolific writer, most of his works came during his time in the States. He published only one book in Cuba, another was smuggled to France, and both incurred the wrath of the government. There are so many unanswered questions about Arenas himself. At the end of the film, he is still a mystery.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
2 hours, 5 minutes, some Spanish with English subtitles, Rated R for strong sexual content, some language, and brief violence.

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