Before Night Falls
First screened in March 2001 / Reviewed in July 2010
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Director: Julian Schnabel. Cast: Javier Bardem, Andrea Di Stefano, Olivier Martinez, Olatz López Garmendia, Michael Wincott, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Santiago Magill, Manuel González, Claudette Maillé, Patricia Reyes Spíndola, Najwa Nimri, Hector Babenco, Francisco Gattorno, Marisol Padilla Sánchez, Sebastián Silva, Carmen Beato, Pedro Armendáriz, Diego Luna, Jerzy Skolimowski, Ofelia Medina, Alfredo Villa, Diahnne Déa, Zulema Cruz. Screenplay: Cunningham O'Keefe, Lázaro Gómez Carriles, and Julian Schnabel (based on the memoir Before Night Falls and other texts by Reinaldo Arenas).
Twitter Capsule (Jul 10): Robust color, vivid sound, vital camerawork, but less coherent than I'd recalled. Strong but v. erratic vision.

Photo © 2000 Fine Line Features/Grandview Pictures
Sadly, I cannot remember who it was in my life that asked me, "Before Night Falls—is that the movie that temporarily convinced me that the most exquisite way to have sprouted artistic genius would have been to grow up scratching around at the bottom of a dirt pit?" Add in the astonishing camera movement that, as part of that famous opening, carries us uninterruptedly from a close-up on the toddler Reinaldo Arenas's foot to the high-angle vantage of a tropical canopy of trees, and indeed you have the making not just of an indelible image but of a virtual advertisement for soul-infused destitution. Director Julian Schnabel, four years following his debut with Basquiat and seven years before The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, rarely meets a scenario that he can't or won't endow with aesthetic grandiloquence. Still, I think it's as easy to snipe at Before Night Falls for being so sensually robust, despite a narrative anchored in oppression, torture, and exile, as it is to abandon oneself so totally to these lush textures that the movie's storytelling hiccups and dubiously simplified politics emerge, at best, only as afterthoughts. After all, Arenas himself describes his indigent childhood in terms of the "grossest poverty and the greatest freedom," in prose that is reprised for Javier Bardem's opening narration. Wrangle all you want with the unilateral depiction of Castro's regime as a rampantly localized yet facelessly totalized apparatus of domination. Several people have lamented the film's total demonization of the post-revolutionary Cuban government, just as some readers lamented the same in the poetic memoir on which Before Night Falls is based. But to say this is to observe that Arenas himself is firmly and completely justifiably anti-Castro. Consequently, a film so intent not just upon evoking the events of Arenas's life but upon suffusing them with his throbbing, unfolding, unabashedly carnal sensibility can hardly be expected to soften its portrait of the repressive vise that gripped Arenas's life under Castro, even as it must be admitted that his memoir betrays much more sense than the movie does of how autocracy and eroticization can co-exist in surprising, dangerous ways.

That's all just to say that to encounter Before Night Falls, an undeniable anomaly in the American movie marketplace, is to force a reaction to Shortcomings, lots of ideas but erratically executed (Depp/Depp, footage/recreation, Spanish/English, narrative, performance - even Bardem) Vivid life of objects, the gravitational pull of color, light, and motion -- not just limited to scenes of discrete inspiration (and not at expense of essentializing Cuba) Life/death pull Hedonism of arranging himself for 15-20 seconds before OM walks in Breaking mimetic and narrative frameworks, a la DBB, but more successfully - RA still making art; even if church party looks like wrap party, and Pepe Malas is a phony; imaginging solitary & interview with Depp Naked Lunch Thrill, Flutter, thrust B+

(in March 2001: A–)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Javier Bardem

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actor (Drama): Javier Bardem

Other Awards:
Venice Film Festival: Grand Special Jury Prize; Best Actor (Bardem); OCIC Award (Honorable Mention)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Actor (Bardem)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actor (Bardem)
National Board of Review: Best Actor (Bardem); Freedom of Expression Award

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