Movie Review by Kris Griffiths
Starring: Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Olivier Martinez
Director: Julian Schnabel
Reinaldo Arenas was a gay Cuban writer, writing and sodomizing throughout Castro’s revolution. BEFORE NIGHT FALLS tells us the story of his struggles against a government that allowed him to do neither. This is probably the best film I’ve seen this year.
The film opens, as most biopics do, with the hero as a child, and we see Reinaldo transcend the extreme poverty of his early surroundings through his gift of poetry. His father however does not appreciate poetry being hacked into his tree trunks and the disillusioned boy soon runs away to join Fidel’s militant rebels. His early writing is complemented by cigars and sneaky relief sessions with the local whore, and the disinterest exuding from his face is soon replaced by a gentle campness as he grows into a young man (played by Javier Bardem). He receives his first typewriter from his first gay friend, Pepe (Andrea Di Stefano), who only hands it over in return for a sample of his talent. Reinaldo practices his talent with five hundred different men by the age of twenty-five, and whilst practising his other talent for writing, suffers more disillusionment at the hands of the revolutionists he himself had supported.
Art and homosexuality are declared as counter-revolutionary, and Reinaldo is forced to practice both on the sly. These are only two of several new regulations in Cuba that lead to serious trouble for him and his mates. The forbiddance of any assembly of more than three people in one house results in the host of a poetry reading having to denounce himself on live television. When Reinaldo’s clothes are pinched by a pair of youths on a beach, his complaint to a policeman backfires when the kids accuse him of molesting them – which is enough evidence for the camp Cuban to be thrown straight into jail wearing only his tight trunks. He then makes the most audacious escape I’ve ever seen, walking straight out of his cell not long after arriving, finding a door that conveniently opens into the ocean, and diving to his freedom. But life as a gay novelist fugitive is predictably swift, and he soon finds himself being stuffed into a rather cramped isolation cell for his second stint. It is in this prison that Johnny Depp makes his brief appearance, confusingly as two different characters on screen within minutes of each other.
Despite the brevity of their appearances Depp and Sean Penn shine in their cameos, whilst Bardem, despite this being his first English speaking film role, shines brilliantly from start to finish. He powerfully portrays the struggle of his character against the corrupt Cuban government and ultimately against the affliction of AIDS. The film is beautifully crafted with strokes of cinematic mastery. There are unforgettable scenes such as the slowly rising view of an attempted escape in a hot air balloon, or the scene where Reinaldo watches his lover snogging a woman on a packed dance-floor to the mournful melody of Lou Reed’s ‘Rouge’. A masterpiece.