(director/writer: Julian Schnabel; screenwriters: Cunningham O’Keefe/Lazaro Gomez Carriles/based on the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas; cinematographers: Xavier Perez Grobet/ Guillermo Rosas; editor: Michael Berenbaum; cast: Javier Bardem (Reinaldo), Johnny Depp (Bon Bon and Lieutenant Victor), Andrea Di Stefano (Pepe Malas), Olatz Lopez Garmendia (Reinaldo’s Mother), Olivier Martinez (Lázaro), Sean Penn (Cuco Sánchez), Michael Wincott (Heberto Zorilla Ochoa), Vito Maria Schnabel (Reinaldo as a child-he’s the director’s son); Runtime: 125; Fine Line Features; 2000)

“Julian Schnabel has created an emotionally penetrating look at a poet living a marginalized existence…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat”), the artist turned filmmaker, adapted the 1993 posthumously written autobiographical memoir of gay Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas whose difficult life is painted in quick glimpses of his desperate but unfulfilled search for happiness and freedom. It is a biopic that is brutally honest about the exiled writer as an opponent of Castro’s, one that lets us see that liberation to him was not only a matter of politics but of the freedom to be a homosexual and an artist. It is something which the Castro regime couldn’t agree with and came down harshly on both homosexuals and artists, by sending them to prison camps.

Born in poverty in the lush surroundings of Oriente Province, in 1943, Arenas’ childhood memories are of a carefree one but of having a mother who hated her husband and did not live with him during Arenas’ formative childhood years. He was raised by his single mother and his grandmother. The only thing the child remembers about his father is that when he was five years old he got two pesos from him, as his mother cursed his father out and threw rocks at him from across a pond. His happiest moments in childhood seemed to be watching the nude men bathing and those moments connected with nature, such as his love for the landscape and the ocean. During Castro’s revolutionary fight he was caught up in the fever of revolution and ran away from home and joined the rebels, but did no fighting.

Spanish actor Javier Bardem portrays Arenas (someone he closely resembles) with great sexuality, perception and feeling, giving a virtuoso performance. He also does the voiceover in a thick English accent, as he paints a portrait of a troubled romantic figure who became disillusioned with communism and was never able to recover from that.

Entering a literary competition Reinaldo places second, but an influential Cuban writer thinks Arenas should have won and works to get his novel “Singing From the Well” edited and published. This book would be his only one ever published inside Cuba.

Arenas lived a very active sexually free homosexual life, having said in his memoir that he had thousands of such encounters before he was 25. One of his early boyfriends, the bisexual Pepe (Andrea Di Stefano), is unreliable and will later betray him.

During the liberating time frame of his young adulthood, Arenas lists the three things he enjoyed most: his typewriter, the youth of those days and his love of the sea.

After Arenas’s work was banned in Cuba he was published in France, as friends of his smuggled out of the country his manuscripts; but, his hopes for the Castro regime were dashed forever by their intolerance. After he is arrested on trumped-up charges of violating minors and is locked in a cramped prison, he escapes by squeezing out of a cell door and jumping into the ocean. Castro will allow for no artistic freedom or homosexual activity, which he labels counterrevolutionary. Fed up with the Castro regime, he will try unsuccessfully to escape Cuba by taking an inner tube out on the ocean.

When captured after hiding in the woods Arenas is placed in an overcrowded prison cell with murderers and rapists; but, he earns cigarettes by writing letters for his illiterate fellow prisoners, thereby gaining their confidence. Arenas also got a transvestite, played by Johnny Depp, to smuggle out of prison his manuscripts. In his most harrowing prison experience he is thrown into solitary confinement in a cramped cell, where he is unable to stand up straight. Depp, in a dual role, is a prison lieutenant, who cruelly interrogates him and forces him to make statements disclaiming his writings and lifestyle.

Weary of living in Cuba and being persecuted for his open homosexuality Arenas takes advantage of Castro’s new policy to get rid of the so-called misfits, as he changes his name on his passport. He sails to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Arenas settled in Miami, but the film does not cover that unhappy period in his life. Instead it follows him to New York City, where he had a faithful lover (Olivier Martinez). Arenas earns money in NYC by writing, teaching and lecturing; but, he was lonely and unhappy, as shown by his saddened face as he stared blankly out at Central Park and seemed to be wondering what he was doing there.

The poet contacted AIDS and in 1990 he took an overdose of sleeping pills, put a plastic I LOVE NEW YORK shopping bag over his head and committed suicide by suffocation, as his lover read to him a poem about his childhood that he was proud to have published. Before Arenas died he wrote several letters blaming Castro for all his troubles and his death, sending it to some respected American newspapers.

Julian Schnabel has created an emotionally penetrating look at a poet living a marginalized existence and using that bitter experience as a source of energy for his writing. The film paints a picture of a man fighting tyranny by his will to be free, where his spirit alone kept him going. This beautifully photographed film, which looks much like a series of paintings on canvas, might be too bleak for a general audience. It paints a more realistic political view of Castro’s Cuba than most of the recent films I have seen about this subject, and should be of special interests to those of all persuasions who care about freedom and the arts. The film’s title refers to the daylight he had in which to write while hiding out from the police in the woods. Schnabel started work on “Before Night Falls” while in Cuba and finished it in New York.