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Before Night Falls
2000 - R - 125 Mins.
Director: Julian Schnabel
Producer: Jon Kilik
Written By: Lazaro Gomez Carriles, Cunningham O\'Keefe, Julian Schnabel
Starring: Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn
Review by: David Trier
It is truly horrible to be truly poor. Being poor in Cuba is a special kind of misery. Being poor and homosexual in communist Cuba is just awful. Being poor, Cuban, gay, and in prison is horrible. Being a poor, gay, Cuban refugee in New York is no fun either. And dying of AIDS a poor, gay Cuban in New York is about as bad as it gets. Well, that's the idea behind this beautifully shot, expertly acted, well-constructed but unbelievably unpleasant film.

Before Night Falls is the true story of Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem), a Cuban novelist and poet who grew up during Cuba's transition from god-awful government to god-awful communist government. At a time when the revolutionaries rejected art more than the establishment even, it was miserable struggle after miserable struggle for Arenas. He ends up framed, imprisoned, and persecuted throughout his whole life for both his poetry (for being too beautiful, apparently) and for his sexual deviance (doing it with guys). His poetry and his homosexuality were considered counter-revolutionary by Castro's regime and after much adversity, Arenas finally found refuge in the United States. But then he died of AIDS.

The acting in this film is exceptional. Bardem looks sort of like a cross between Tony Shalhoub and Eric Roberts, I think. Not that that has any relevance. He is a very powerful actor, and his performance is well worth the miserable ride. The rest of the cast is very good, but as there were so many characters and almost all of them played by foreign actors, I can't seem to remember any of them well enough to describe them. There are three A-list American actors who have bit parts in this movie for some reason. Michael Wincott, Johnny Depp as both a transvestite and a lieutenant, and Sean Penn who's in one scene as a poor crusty Cuban named Cuco. They are all very good, especially Wincott, because his role isn't so comedic. Director Julian Schabel has a terrific cinematic eye. The photography is engaging, and the film is pretty well paced. Schnabel directed Basquiat a few years ago (also about a struggling artist, but with far less adversity), and this is a much more powerful film.

Most true stories are overly dramatic and tend to use too much music to make up for not enough substance in a scene. Before Night Falls does not have this problem, as all the acting is up to par and the dialogue is very well written (the music by Carter Burwell with contributions by Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed is good, anyway). Plus Arenas' story is a pretty interesting one. But the movie is a little too long and a little too depressing to deal with all the way through. I'm not sure anything can be done about this. It is a truly depressing story, but I can't bring myself to say, "Hey, check out this movie - it was awesome!" Still, one has to respect Schnabel's honesty in the direction of this film. Like Arenas' poetry, he shows us a Cuba we've never really seen before, and he does it unapologetically. He is candid in portraying the lifestyle of a gay man where most films about homosexuals seem to censor themselves. Actually, if you're squeamish about naked guys or guys in Speedos rolling around, kissing, or nailing each other in the shower, you might want to skip this one.

Still, despite the rough journey, this is a well-directed, terrifically acted film about a genuinely talented poet. It won the Grand Special Jury Prize for direction and the Volpi Cup for Bardem's performance at the Venice Film Festival. You leave the theater unhappy, but artistically satisfied.
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

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