Episodic look at the life of Cuban poet and novelist, Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), from his childhood in Oriente province to his death in New York City. He joins Castro's rebels. By 1964, ...
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Episodic look at the life of Cuban poet and novelist, Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), from his childhood in Oriente province to his death in New York City. He joins Castro's rebels. By 1964, he is in Havana. He meets the wealthy Pepe, an early lover; a love-hate relationship lasts for years. Openly gay behavior is a way to spite the government. His writing and homosexuality get him into trouble: he spends two years in prison, writing letters for other inmates and smuggling out a novel. He befriends Lázaro Gomes Garriles, with whom he lives stateless and in poverty in Manhattan after leaving Cuba in the Mariel boat-lift. When asked why he writes, he replies cheerfully, "Revenge." Written by
Julian Schnabel is primarily a visual artist and secondarily a film director, and his mastery of visual media dominates this patient and precise bio of the late Reynaldo Arenas, a novelist and poet who was imprisoned and later exiled from his native Cuba for his controversial writings and his open homosexuality.
Most of the objections to this film have to do with the faithfulness with which Schnabel treats the memoir of Arenas (also titled 'Before Night Falls'), which, despite its beauty, is undoubtedly biased in its presentation of history. Furthermore, Schnabel seems to downplay Arenas' contempt for Fidel Castro and the post-revolutionary totalitarianism of his regime, under which countless poets, writers, artists, and practitioners of alternative lifestyles deemed 'counter-revolutionary' by the regime were jailed, tortured, murdered, and, in some cases, expelled from Cuba. Schnabel presents Arenas as far more of a victim than an active voice of dissent, which is, in a certain sense, unfaithful to his legacy. It feels as if Schnabel may have had some reservation about being overcritical of Castro and, by default, of Communism, both of which are sympathized with by many artists and leftists worldwide (including the family of the film's star, Javier Bardem, a Spaniard whose parents--influential figures in Spanish cinema--are longtime outspoken Communists/Socialists).
Both actor and director have publicly avowed that the film means to critique totalitarianism in general more so than Castro or Communist Cuba in particular, which seems like a bit of a cop-out. Nevertheless, art, despite its inherently political nature, should strive to be a-political, and this film does so effectively with its blending of gorgeous image and fine, subtle performance, particularly by Bardem as Arenas. Bardem has the face of a classical statue, and his deep set eyes, broken, Roman nose, and expressive mouth are mesmerizing. With the right role, he could (and should) be a major star in the US, as he has been for some time in his native Spain. Every move he makes is compelling to watch, and he creates a sympathy for Arenas few other actors could manage. His narration of Arenas' poetry and prose is patient and soulful, adding much to the already gorgeous shots of rural and urban settings (the film employs archival footage from Cuba, but was filmed in Merida and Veracruz, Mexico, in the Yucatan, the region of Mexico closest to Cuba).
Because the film is based on a memoir, it proceeds episodically, following the young Arenas from his boyhood to his early accomplishments as a poet and novelist through his imprisonment and later his escape to the United States during Castro's 'purge' of undesirables in 1980 (the same means by which Tony Montana escapes Cuba in 'Scarface'), when criminals and homosexuals were invited to voluntarily expatriate to Miami so that the demand for basic resources in Cuba under the US-led embargo could be relieved somewhat. The film spends considerable time reflecting on Arenas' sexual initiation and his gay lifestyle, which is slightly problematic in that it suggests that Arenas was persecuted solely for being homosexual, which is at best a half-truth. Though Arenas himself was probably persecuted less for his lifestyle than for his public criticism of the regime, it is probably not inaccurate in its portrayal of the turn against art, life, and experimentation taken by Castro's brutal totalitarian ethos. In any case, Arenas ultimately makes his way to New York with his friend Lazaro (Olivier Martinez), where in 1987 he began to suffer symptoms of AIDS. He died in 1990, after which his memoir and several letters condemning Castro and the failure of the US to rescue the Cuban people from his tyranny were published, to wide acclaim.
The film should not be overly criticized for its historical errors and omissions, because it is primarily a showcase for Schnabel's artistry as a director and Bardem's astonishingly charismatic performance as Arenas. The film is also graced by fine performances by Martinez as Lazaro, who rebuffs Arenas' sexual advances but later becomes his dearest and most trusted friend; Johnny Depp in dual roles as a jail house transvestite who helps Arenas smuggle his manuscripts out to the world and as a sadistic prison guard; Sean Penn as a farmer who encounters the young Arenas on the road to Havana; and Michael Wincott as Herbet Z. Ochoa, a poet and essayist forced to publicly renounce his art by a Communist tribunal.
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