Cuban Rebel’s Life Lit Brightly in `Night’

Eric Adams

The true measure of any good film is how far it immerses you within it. “Before Night Falls,” directed by Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat”), transports the audience to revolutionary Cuba to experience the life of author Reynaldo Arenas, played expertly by Javier Bardem (“Jamon Jamon”). The Cuban-born author’s life was one of extremes. Dizzying amounts of the high life are dashed by boulders of oppression hurled mainly by the Cuban government. Johnny Depp (“Chocolat,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) plays two great cameos on each side of Arenas’ oppression. The lows of his life only seem to make the highs that much more wonderful. Schnabel teaches us a universal lesson in a hauntingly beautiful package tied with Carter Burwell’s musical ribbons. We don’t feel like we’re being taught a lesson since the packaging is so lovely, the mark of a true artist. Schnabel is well known in the fine art world as an established artist who’s only previous film “Basquiat” was also heralded as a visual masterpiece.

The opening scene shows young Arenas contentedly playing naked in a muddy hole. He and his young, single mother live with his grandparents and large extended family in an overcrowded shack in rural Cuba. However, Schnabel focuses on the lushness of the trees, the effervescence of the waters, and the songs in the skies. The adults in Arenas’ life seem unhappy, but he himself (and the audience with him) is a happy wanderer spying on the beauty of his world. This theme is repeated throughout the film — what would keep others down, Arenas finds beauty in, and subsequently writes about it. Arenas also accepts the taboo of being gay and flourishes (for a time) in the homophobic Latin American world.

When a filmmaker decides to film the life of a real person, he is taking a big risk. Balancing the elements of the different times in a life is a delicate job, but Schnabel has done it amazingly well, with sensitivity and even humor in otherwise horrible circumstances. Each episode of Arenas’ life is treated with diligent care: adolescence, his early years as a rebel, young adulthood and the sexual adventures therein, along with the mature years of a great author. The director shows great care in his attention to detail. Reflections of flashing electric signs fill a dark, dingy room as young Arenas loses his virginity to a salsa-fly old enough to be his mother. The lines and curves of bodies and 1960’s bathing suits are lovingly shown as objet’s de art as well as objet’s de sex. Crumbling city walls and hidden churches populate an archaic-seeming city that is achingly alive with youth and noise. To accurately portray Arenas’ life, Schnabel has shown much more than just the man. He has given a deeper understanding by showing us the rooms he lived in, the plants he cared for, the music he danced to, the men he loved and the government who imprisoned him for his truthful works.

This movie is such a beautiful work of art. It is political yet human, harsh yet funny, stark yet beautiful.