Before Night Falls [2000]

Genre: Biography, Drama
Based on the posthumously published memoir by Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls is artist-director Julian Schnabel's second exercise in artist biography, but where Schnabel's earlier film Basquiat was relatively conventional, this film is bolder in both style and execution. Schnabel is perhaps too enamored of his subject as a noble martyr, lending the film a somewhat inflated sense of importance. Still, it's rare to see an artist's life and work so elegantly interwoven, and Before Night Falls uses all of Arenas's life as its canvas, from impoverished youth to lively gay freedom in mid-1950's Cuba; imprisonment during Castro's antigay regime; and to New York City in 1980, followed by Arenas's battle with AIDS and subsequent suicide (depicted here as assisted) in 1990. Through these extreme rises and falls, Arenas is always writing, his typewriter his most faithful lover and weapon (by way of smuggled manuscripts) against the dark forces that surround him. As Time magazine's Richard Corliss wrote, Arenas is "a serious actor's dream role: to be a gay Jesus in a modern Passion Play," and Javier Bardem--the first Spanish actor to receive an Oscar nomination--inhabits the role with subtle ferocity, charting this emotional odyssey with outer reserve but blazing infernos of internal passion. And while Schnabel suffers from a hyperactive camera, there's poetry here--visual, dramatic, and literal--and vibrant humor to temper the deep tragedy of Arenas's life. Schnabel also uses his actor friends to good advantage: a nearly unrecognizable Sean Penn adds an ironic touch to his brief appearance as a peasant, and Johnny Depp is both funny and fearsome in dual roles as a drag queen and vicious army interrogator. --Jeff Shannon

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