Before Night Falls
This is a slightly pretentious film, which suffers from lack of clarity. The Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas, tells his story from poverty in Cuba to exile and death in America. And yes, he is still telling the story up to his death, which is why I found this whole film slightly confusing.
Arenas is persecuted as much for being a writer (an interesting point is made about revolutions hating beauty and therefore all artists) as for being a homosexual. The Cuban revolutionaries, led by Castro, openly decried “deviant” lifestyles, persecuted homosexuals, rounding them up and putting them into enforced labour camps.
There is very little actual narration; the film relies on visuals, and to a huge extent, your previous knowledge of events of the Cuban revolution and the works of Arenas himself. I’ve just read a very interesting article by Peter Tatchell in the Guardian, (read here) , reviewing this film, and he colours in the anti-gay climate that existed at that time. It certainly makes the film more interesting knowing this background, but you shouldn’t have to do previous research to enjoy a film. For example, although we see Arenas in America getting sick, we’re not told what he’s sick with, how he got sick, why he’s removed from hospital…. I would have known all this if I’d researched before watching the film, but I feel it should have been clearer in the actual film. I’m not naive, I could have guessed it was AIDS, but isn’t that making an assumption you shouldn’t as soon as someone gay gets sick?
The actor playing Arenas gives a very persuasive performance, and he deserves the credit he got for it, but it’s all a little worthy.
I also felt that there was some dishonesty in this film, although I wouldn’t get into a debate with Peter Tatchell about it. The whole theme is persecution of gays, and yet Arenas’s lifestyle is very much glossed over—there are hints that it was pretty deviant, but that wouldn’t fit into the polemic of the film, that he was this great innocent destroyed by an evil system.
I’m fascinated to see that Johnny Depp is in this film and now I know that, I can see which character he is (see the article above for a picture of him). He is an amazingly versatile actor, but I think utterly miscast as a sadomasochist prison officer.
Watch for historical interest. Watch if you’re aware of Arenas’s work. Not really going to appeal to a much wider audience than that.
I’d never heard of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, subject of this stylish film biography, but that doesn’t matter because Spanish actor Javier Bardem gives such a brilliant performance in the lead role by the end I felt I knew the essence of the man.
It’s quite a long film, and drags in places. The narrative is episodic, almost dreamlike, so if you’re looking for a factual account of a life covering all the bases you’ll find gaping holes. I’d have been less confused had I known something about the background. But the wonderful Bardem, despite a thick Spanish accent, more than compensates for deficiencies. Then there’s the look of it, stunning images shown with a painter’s eye, brilliant colour and music for mood and local flavour. The icing on the cake is Arenas’ words in voiceover, informing the ignorant like me why he deserves to be remembered.
Everyone goes on about Johnny Depp’s double cameos, as knock-out beautiful drag queen Bon Bon with a handy skill for smuggling illicit items out of jail and a creepy prison official who forces Arenas to deny his writing and his gay sexuality. He’s there to bring production money and put bums on seats. Sean Penn appears too, unrecognisable as a cart driver who warns the young writer against the Communists. I liked gorgeous Olivier Martinez playing Arenas’ friend Lazaro who was there for him when no one else seemed to care. Actually the film is stuffed full of beautiful Hispanic & Latino men, a real visual treat!
The best section is set in vibrant Cuba, from the 50s through the 70s, though the film compresses time so you don’t get a proper sense of decades passing. Reinaldo was born into a peasant family yet became an internationally acclaimed writer. For him Castro’s revolution and sexual freedom went together. All the more reason to be bitter and angry when that revolution welcomed with joy turned against men like him, dissident writer critical of an increasingly oppressive regime, and homosexual, a ‘disease’ of decadent capitalism to be purged. There’s little sex but Reinaldo’s attraction to pretty young men around him is shown clearly and with some humour. Sex was a way of fighting the regime that stifled his creativity by refusing the right to be heard in his own country. Bardem oozes sex appeal and there are nicely erotic scenes.
A spell in prison under appalling conditions dampens neither ardour nor burning need to write. Ironically Arenas left Cuba as an undesirable on an American boatlift in 1981. He went to New York where the life went out of him, stateless non-person, exiled from home and friends and without much money. His long struggle was cut brutally short by AIDS. Yet again I wept for a gay man cruelly punished by that viciously merciless virus. This is a serious film. Reinaldo Arenas had the courage to live as he chose, a gay man, a passionate writer who spoke for the persecuted. I’m going to look for his work. For more information on Arenas go to http://www.glbtq.com/literature/arenas_r.html.