The celebrated Czech writer Milan Kundera once said that without censorship he couldn’t have written what he did. Oppression gave life to his works. Though Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas never publicly made such an admission, he likely could have related to Kundera’s assertion. Oppression cannot stop, and often sparks artistic genius.
Arenas was a very complex, passionate, angry and arguably crazed, writer. The more Castro’s regime cornered him, the more he wrote. Though he felt himself a victim of Castro, in a strange way his work thrived on that censorship. When he died in 1990 at age 47, he had written more than 20 books, though he never received the kind of acclaim afforded Kundera and other writers.
“I am the angry and lonely child of always,” Arenas begins one of his poems. It’s a sadly apt summation of his life. He was not accepted in his native Cuba, nor did he find acceptance when he came to the United States. This “lonely child of always” who belonged to no state, lived on the edge of society regardless of political boundaries. In New York, he spent his final years in exile and poverty, eating baby food he preferred to think of as “puree.” The difference between a communist and a capitalist state, he said, is that “when capitalism gives you a kick in the pants, you can scream.”
Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel’s extraordinarily poetic and compelling portrait of the tormented artist, is sure to bring Arenas and his impressive body of work the overdue recognition they deserve. Arenas’ writing has been called some of the most passionate ever written against the totalitarian state. People familiar with his novels say his writing rivals that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Arenas is missing only the renown.
Julian Schnabel, the director of Basquiat, has a special gift for bringing obscure artists to light. Before Night Falls, based on Arenas’ memoir of the same name, is one of the best explorations of an artist’s psyche and struggle to come along. So authentic is this portrayal, it could almost be a documentary.
Spanish actor Javier Bardem’s inspired performance makes you believe you’re watching the writer himself. Bardem completely immerses himself in this role so well you can’t tell where the actor ends and the character begins. His flawless performance, which is already receiving major recognition, is absolutely mesmerizing.
Before Night Falls eloquently blends narration from Arenas’ memoir and excerpts of his poetry into the narrative, lending the entire film a lyrical quality that makes it as poetic as Arenas’ words. The imagery of the film is equally stunning, from the opening sequences of Cuba’s verdant rural landscape to the ever-present images of water. Even the shots of unmitigated poverty and decay have a simple beauty. The score is as seductively evocative as the cinematography.
Schnabel’s film spans Arenas’ entire artistic life, from the opening sequences when his beautiful mother returns to her parents’ home carrying the three-month-old Reinaldo “as a product of her failure” to his death from AIDS in a run-down New York apartment. Schnabel covers this vast terrain with an effortless realism that never loses sight of Arenas’ humanity.
In his grandparents’ house, as throughout his life, Arenas struggled to freely express himself though surrounded by people who were indifferent and often hostile. He exhibits a gift for poetry early on, carving his words into trees. His grandfather, a brute with little patience for sensitivity in boys, hacks the words out of the bark with an axe. Intrigued by the revolution, Arenas leaves home in 1958 to join Castro’s rebels. He soon enough becomes disenchanted with the broken promises of revolution and turns to writing, winning a storytelling contest and landing a job at the prestigious National Library. The awkward young man, who walks with an insecure shuffle, finds himself as drawn to men as he is to words, and begins exploring his identity as both as writer and a homosexual. He plunges into the sexual revolution that coincides with the political revolution. Sexual freedom becomes a way of fighting a regime that considers hedonism and homosexuality a dangerous by-product of capitalism.
By the late 1960s, however, Castro begins cracking down on writers, homosexuals and dissidents. Despite the threats, Arenas continues to write, smuggling his work out of Cuba, which only leads the government to step up its persecution of him. He is arrested after being falsely accused of molesting two boys at a beach. He escapes from jail and tries to float to Miami in an inner tube, only to end up in Havana, where he lives in Lenin Park, depending on strangers for paper and bits of food. Arrested again, he’s taken to Morro Prison, where convicted rapists and murderers supply him with cigarettes and paper in exchange for writing love letters to their wives and girlfriends. In prison, he writes a book, which the glamourous transvestite Bon Bon (Johnny Depp in another original performance) smuggles out for him. Depp also plays a prison lieutenant who cruelly forces Arenas to renounce his writing when his book is discovered.
His words are all Arenas has, and his output is prolific. When asked, “Why do you write?” he answers with a smile, “revenge.” Arenas came to New York in 1980 during the Mariel Harbor boatlift , when Castro allowed criminals, homosexuals and the mentally ill to leave Cuba. The angry and lonely child arrives at last in the land of the free only to discover that America is no more welcoming of him than was Cuba. For Reinaldo Arenas, true freedom can exist only at a typewriter.
Before Night Falls is not only a vibrant portrait of a complex human being. It is also a powerful exploration of the political repression that informed his work, and a testament to the triumphant power of art that liberated him and will ensure his survival long after political regimes crumble.
Before Night Falls (R)HHHH Directed by Julian Schnabel. Starring Javier Bardem.