Portrait of the Artist as a prisoner

By the

March 22, 2001

A man dives off a dock behind a police station into the wind-whipped Carribean Sea. A grainy, shuddering Castro articulates upon the finer points of revolutionary necessity while his beard devours the microphone. Confronted by a police officer, a man appears terrified at first, then takes a long drag of his cigarette and kisses the officer, exhaling into the man’s mouth.

“Before Night Falls,” Julian Schnabel’s masterpiece chronicling the life of late Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, is a film driven by raw images like these. Arenas is played expertly by Javier Bardem.

Born in 1943, Arenas enjoyed brief success as a writer before his oppositional politics and homosexuality brought him severe persecution. He spent two years in El Morro prison and eventually escaped to the United States via the Mariel Harbor boatlift in 1980. He died of AIDS in New York in 1990.

Schnabel truly understands how to make a biography. Few people view their own lives in terms of long-term plot lines; although individuals may be greatly affected by changes in situation or locale, more intimate sights and sounds are what truly stick to the soul. Schnabel knows how to capture these tenderly on camera; he also knows how to juxtapose these shots to produce a sharp picture of Arenas’ life as a whole, dissolving boundaries between personal and political elements.

Through Schnabel’s vision, revolutions are seen as multipliers of power and vitality by those at the vortex. Everything becomes more vivid; sensations are amplified. By those on the periphery, they may seem more like a flat, blind plane sweeping back and forth across the cultural landscape, stirring violence wherever they encounter opposition. Via Arenas’ life, we get both of these perspectives.

As a young revolutionary, Arenas experiences great freedom as a writer and a homosexual. He finds mentors in several prominent Cuban writers and begins to learn of Cuba’s sexual subculture through his friend and lover Pepe.

One of the film’s first great scenes takes place when Pepe and Arenas are out at one of Havana’s hotspots. The jazz band is playing its heart out, the young and beautiful of Havana are cutting a rug and synchronized swimmers grace the pool. No sound can be heard from the bustling party; the only audio is a spot-on string arrangement. Pepe suddenly leaves their table to dance with a voluptuous young woman, and Arenas retaliates by following a young man out to the balcony. Passion, jealousy and revenge all play out intimately before the camera.

From here we see Bardem’s Arenas experience revolution from its powerful core. His first book, Singing From The Well, is published to great critical acclaim. The world he encounters through Pepe allows him to explore his sexuality to its outer boundaries. There is an especially beautiful shot of Arenas on the roof of his apartment, seated at his typewriter against the beautiful Havana sky.

Not suprising, this tranquility does not last. A later scene finds Arenas seated on a rock at the beach, reading a book. A man swims up and sits down next to him. When Arenas makes advances, the man responds by hitting him in the face. Arenas’ political persecution follows soon after; his dual revolutions make an about face and sweep him aside. “Naturally,” he reflects later while waiting in line at a police station, “the revolution was not for everyone.” Arenas’ life reflects both sides of this divide.

As the blundering flyswatter of the regime’s opression gives Arenas an increasing sense of urgency, the plotline of his life and the world he inhabits mentally begin increasingly to diverge. He daydreams while being interrogated by a police officer (excellently played by Johnny Depp); given five minutes to write a confession, he fantasizes them away. The camera’s pace is increasingly frenzied and unrestrained; Arenas’ world seems whimsical or even insane. In one of the most notable segments, Pepe steals a hot air balloon owned by friends of Reinaldo in a final attempt at revenge on his one-time lover. He attempts to fly it to Miami, only to crash on the boardwalk before even leaving the island.

Many gripping scenes later, we find Arenas in New York, his life fading away a little more each time he climbs up the stairs to his apartment. The closing is almost anti-climactic; the viewer slides out of Arenas’ life as easily as he did. The comedown is easy, but the effect is profound.

For his phenomenal performance in Before Night Falls, Javier Bardem has been nominated for Best Actor at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

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