a martyr to art and free thought. Openly homosexual, a rebel, a
writer, and an intellectual, he was tortured and rejected by his
society, and forced to sneak his books out of the country in various
ways, some of them quite ... unexpected. (One is smuggled out of
prison in a transvestite's capacious bumhole. Johnny Depp plays the
gaudy man-gal with the awe-inspiring butt. Depp also assays another
small role as a handsome jailer who drives Arenas mad with lust.)
Arenas supported the
revolution in Cuba when it appeared to offer liberation from the
virtual slavery inherent within the lives of the peasant class. The
early months were giddy with sexual liberation, parades, even
camaraderie between the gay guys and the revolutionary soldiers. That
didn't last long. As with so many revolutions, the original repressors
were overthrown by guys who wanted to add some new and different
repressions. Homosexuality was eventually banned by the Castro
government. Arenas finally left Cuba in 1980 in the Mariel boatlift,
which lumped together "hard-core criminals and homosexuals"
as those permitted to leave a society for which they were judged
His body ravaged by
AIDS, he committed suicide in 1990, through a combination of popping
pills and suffocating himself with an I Love NY bag. He was living in
dire poverty in NY, without health insurance.
Such a film has about as much chance
of bad reviews as a pro-Nazi tract has of good reviews. How many
writers will pan the story of someone whose story acts as a surrogate
for themselves? Who will take the first stance against free speech and
in favor of Castro?
To tell you the
truth, almost nobody liked Arenas as a human being, although his work
has been widely praised. (I haven't read any of it). When he was in
the USA, he continued to think for himself. While he continued to
excoriate Castro's regime, he also wrote vitriolic words against the
Miami exile community, the gay community which tried to adopt him,
other artists who praised him, and the blind worship of money in the
capitalist USA. Like the DeSade portrayed in Quills, he genuinely
enjoyed attacking the smug and self-satisfied, even when it meant
risking great personal discomfort. Some people say he just had to tell
the truth, irrespective of the consequences. I would guess that he was
very much like the Quills version of DeSade, and that being against
something was what he loved best, no matter what he was opposing.
Is it actually a good
movie? It's just OK. It isn't a bad movie, but it isn't what you would
expect from the glowing reviews. I liked many scenes, and I liked it
on balance, but the critics went overboard with praise which seems
fulsome to me.
- It's episodic and
disjointed. You won't know or care who some of the characters
- Although it is
supposed to be a biopic, it seems to include historical episodes
which never happened, as many scenes in the artist's head as in
reality, with very little, if anything, to tell you when the film
has left reality. As one small example, the real-life Lazaro was a
good friend of Arenas, but was a heterosexual. All the physical
love was Arenas' sexual fantasy.
- It's too long (133
minutes), and boring in spots.
- It can be
altogether too arty.
- It's misleading about its time compression. Arenas lived in Cuba 21
years after the revolution. He lived in the USA ten years, but
those 10 years are passed over with barely a mention, as a mere
postscript. If Arenas was such an important writer, where were all
the works of genius that he should have produced in the ten years
- The film
emphasized Arenas' anger against the Castro regime, but ignored
his equally blistering attacks on American capitalism and Reagan.
The film also soft-pedaled Arena's legendary promiscuity. (5000
male lovers before he went to prison). I think if you are going to
tell a man's story, you should also tell the part that the
audience won't like. Both his fervent anti-capitalism, and his
dogma that "sex is emancipation", were essential to an understanding
of the man.
- It must set the
all-time record for voice-overs. Many reviewers excused this
because of the beauty of the passages. True of some passages.
Unfortunately, much of the narration was just plot advancement or
- Why do the Spanish
characters speak to each other in accented English? Why did they
hire Spanish-speaking actors, then get them to speak English to
each other? In addition to the inherent artificiality, this
prevents actors from doing what they do best. I assume Javier
Bardem can speak Spanish with a flawless Cuban accent. Why make
him try (with mixed success) to speak English with a Cuban accent,
and Cuban phrasing? He has a hard enough time with any English at
all. English-speaking Al Pacino did a better job at speaking
English with a Cuban accent than Spanish-speaking Bardem. It is very difficult to speak your
second language with the correct accent, especially if you don't
even know what the language sounds like before the accent is
added. To create some authenticity, Schnabel should have had the
Spanish actors speak Spanish to each other at all times, adding
subtitles as appropriate. Instead he sacrificed authenticity in
some kind of half-hearted compromise to marketability - as if this
was going to be "Titanic" at the box office.
Having carped thus,
let me point out some real strengths.
- In some cases, I
agree with the critics on the voice-overs. When they are good,
they are very good. Near the end of the film, as Arenas rode in a
cab and remembered the Havana he left behind, as it was some 20
years after the revolution, his narration was supported by visuals
of the closed businesses and churches which once flourished, and
the film reached a beauty rarely seen in cinema.
- I assume that the
balloon incident never happened, but it was great filmmaking. An
underground group of social pariahs lives in Havana in a deserted
cathedral which has a gigantic hole in the ceiling. One of the
outcasts is an engineer who creates a hot air balloon from old
parachutes, and the group debates who among them should leave on
the balloon to head for the USA. A selfish cad commandeers the
balloon for himself while the others sleep off the effects of a
party. He floats through the roof and drifts off in jubilance, but
loses control of the balloon. Having briefly tasted of the sight
of the open sea, he is blown back over the city, and plummets to
his death in a Havana street.
- The film is
inconsistent in its visual appeal, but when it is good, it is very
good. Julian Schnabel is an artist, and he knows how to compose
his images, although he doesn't always know how to deliver the
- Javier Bardem
earned his Oscar, easily moving from a young boy to a 40ish
dissolute with no apparent artifice.
- The supporting
players were also good, including some of the best Americans
around, like Johnny Depp and Sean Penn.
- By changing the
stock and tints in some of his footage, the director integrated
documentary archives seamlessly with his own work. Castro seems
like a character in the film.
||After I brutalized the critics, I have
to admit that, on balance, I'm glad I watched the movie.
- I liked some passages very much,
particularly the balloon incident, the section where he first
tastes snow, and the voice-over about the closed doors in Havana
that may never re-open.
- I admired the composition of many
of the images, even if I occasionally found the sound and lighting
to be lacking in technical savvy.
- I liked Bardem's performance, as
- I enjoyed the interview with the
real Arenas, which is included on the DVD with two other short
The film has many good points and
many good sections. Unfortunately, it doesn't have any cohesion to
pull the incidents and thoughts together. It isn't really a biopic so
much as some snippets from a life. I really wish that Schnabel had
done a commentary for the DVD.
General consensus: a bit better than three
stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Maltin 3/4. Apollo
summary. 80% positive overall, and an even more impressive
89% from the
want to learn more about Reinaldo Arenas, The Village
Voice wrote four excellent articles about Arenas and the
- With their
votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters
score it an impressive 7.6, but Apollo users only
- With their
dollars ... it made the art house circuit, grossing $4
million on a maximum of 127 screens.
guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of
excellence, about like three and a half stars
from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm
watchability, about like two and a half stars
from the critics. The fives are generally not
worthwhile unless they are really your kind of
material, about like two stars from the critics.
Films under five are generally awful even if you
like that kind of film, equivalent to about one
and a half stars from the critics or less,
depending on just how far below five the rating
guideline: A means the movie is so good it
will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not
good enough to win you over if you hate the
genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an
open mind about this type of film. C means it will only
appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover
appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you
like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if
you love the genre. F means that the film is not only
unappealing across-the-board, but technically
inept as well.
Based on this
description, this film is a C+. Solid art house picture, but not
a mainstream film.