Before Night Falls (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Javier Bardem was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in this film as Reinaldo Arenas, the persecuted Cuban poet who died of AIDS-related causes after his eventual flight to the United States. The movie was directed by artist Julian Schnabel, whose only previous directorial effort was Basquiat, the biopic of a Haitian immigrant who started in the U.S. as a homeless guy creating street graffiti art, and ended up taking the New York art world by storm.
First of all, ignore the reviews. This is the type of project that always gets good reviews. It is reviewproof.

It could have been the worst piece of dung ever made and still have gotten good reviews because it's such an intellectualized project, and is deemed so politically correct, that people are afraid to dump on it. If it was a better movie than The Godfather, or if it was worse than Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the reviews would have been about the same, because the reviewers end up reviewing the concept of films like this, not the execution. 


Bardem briefly flashed the side of his hip, and was seen in underpants and bathing trunks.

There was miscellaneous male nudity from extras, including an underwater close-up frontal.

No female nudity.

Arenas was 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 unfit. 

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 are. 
  • 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 of freedom? 
  • 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 sexual fantasies.
  • 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 scenes technically.
  • 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. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1

  • three short featurettes

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 did everyone.
  • I enjoyed the interview with the real Arenas, which is included on the DVD with two other short featurettes.

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.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: a bit better than three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Maltin 3/4. Apollo 81.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 80% positive overall, and an even more impressive 89% from the top critics.

  • If you want to learn more about Reinaldo Arenas, The Village Voice wrote four excellent articles about Arenas and the film:

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it an impressive 7.6, but Apollo users only 44/100. 
  • With their dollars ... it made the art house circuit, grossing $4 million on a maximum of 127 screens.
IMDb 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 is.

My own 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.

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