Before Night Falls

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By Carmen Dukes

Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, follows the triumphs and tribulations of acclaimed Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (magnificently played by Javier Bardem). This film chronicles Arenas' most influential moments: his birth and education under the genesis of Fidel Castro's communist revolution, the publication of his first novels, the exploration of his sexuality and his persecution and exile as a homosexual and a writer and, ultimately, his suicide in 1990. Based on his memoirs of the same name, Before Night Falls is a story of a man's quest for unattainable freedom. Schnabel's interpretation of Arenas' autobiography along with Arenas's other works is original, riveting, and emotional.

Painter turned filmmaker, Julian Schnabel (Basquiat), showcases Before Night Falls in a psuedo-documentary style. This film becomes strikingly powerful through its use of grainy film quality, hand-held cameras, voice-overs, direct-address and stock footage. Before Night Falls is an excellent example of cinema-verite.

This poetic film is a translation of Reinaldo Arenas' intellectual and sexual repression before and during Castro's dictatorship. The film's statement about the phenomenon of communism is revealed through breathtaking imagery. Every scene in the film, with the bright colors and innocence of rural Cuba, the harsh and apathetic revolutionary Cuba, and the bitterness and grays of New York where Reinaldo Arenas' quest was still unfilled, is overwhelmingly full of vitality.

Before Night Falls' outstanding cinematography is definitely worth noting. The most enjoyable moments in the film come when the director combines a variety of images with readings of Arenas' extraordinary writings.

Javier Bardem's portrayal of Reinaldo Arenas is brilliant and sensuous. His performance captures Arenas' humanity and innocence. Overall, the use of Latin American actors affords a stunning combination of fresh talent and impressive acting.

Although the film's artistic imagery is excellent, the plot is the film's weakest link. Schnabel's strong focus on Reinaldo Arenas leads to absence in other areas.

Despite the talent of these actors, the script damages their performances in some ways. Arenas' character is depicted as passive; his choices are only the result of the influences surrounding him. The other characters in the film are slightly undifferentiated and bland. The audience is unaware of their importance to Reinaldo.

The lack of well developed secondary characters and the random use of subtitles (the film jumps from English to Spanish throughout), is somewhat confusing and may bother the mainstream the audience.