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Before Night Falls
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Reviews & Ratings for
Before Night Falls More at IMDbPro »

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55 out of 62 people found the following review useful:

Thought Provoking Drama

10/10
Author: jhclues from Salem, Oregon
12 May 2001

There's a lyrical quality to this film that makes the brutality of the oppression it depicts seem almost tangible, and `Before Night Falls, ` directed by Julian Schnabel, is photographed in a way that gives much of it something of a documentary feel (and, indeed, some archival footage is included), which defines the drama and adds to the overall impact of the film. And quite a story it is. The true story of writer Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem), who was born in Cuba in 1943, it touches on his childhood, but concentrates on the '60s and '70s, during which time Arenas was considered a counter-revolutionary by the Cuban government because of his writing, as well as his homosexuality.

Schnabel pulls no punches as he presents an incisive picture of the suffering inflicted upon Arenas (and others) through the wanton mistreatment and discrimination of Castro's regime. Extremely well crafted and delivered, it's a film that makes a powerful statement about many of the things so many take for granted. Like freedom of speech and assembly. For as the film points out, in post-revolution Cuba, a gathering of more than three becomes a criminal offense; a group of people getting together for a poetry reading become criminals of the State, and the punishment for expressing one's own thoughts can be, at the very least, torture and imprisonment.

This is the environment in which Arenas grew and matured, as a person, a poet, a writer; still, he was irrepressible when it came to his work, and managed to create and have some of it published, but only by smuggling it out of Cuba (in one instance to France, where his book was named Best Foreign Novel of the year). It's a ruthless, uncompromising world Schnabel lays bare with his camera, and it's that realistic recreation of that very real time and place that is one of the strengths of this film. But what really drives it and makes it so compelling, is Bardem's incredible portrayal of Arenas.

To say that Bardem's performance was worthy of an Oscar would be an understatement; along with Ed Harris (in `Pollock'), it was quite simply one of the two best of the year (2000). In order to bring Arenas to life, it was necessary for Bardem to capture all of the myriad complexities of the man and the artist, which he did-- and to perfection. It's a challenging role, and Bardem more than lives up to it, with a detailed performance through which he expresses the physical, as well as the emotional aspects of the character: His mannerisms, his walk, the body language that says so much about who he is; how he copes with living in a seemingly hopeless situation. By the end of the movie, because of Bardem, you know who Reinaldo Arenas was, and you're not likely to forget him.

The most poignant scenes in the film are those in which Arenas' words are being recited as the camera creates a visual context for them, looking out through the window of a moving car or bus at the streets, towns, buildings and people, as Arenas describes them. These scenes fill the senses and are virtually transporting; and it is in them that the true poetic nature of Arenas is made manifest. It's beautiful imagery, and the contrast between the beauty of the words and the ugliness of the reality against which it is set is powerful. All of which is beautifully conceived and executed by Schnabel; an excellent piece of filmmaking.

In a dual supporting performance, Johnny Depp is effective as Bon Bon, a `queen' Arenas meets during his incarceration, and also as Lieutenant Victor, who oversees the prison. Each character is unique, and it's quite a showcase for Depp's versatility.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Olivier Martinez (Lazaro), Andrea Di Stefano (Pepe), Sean Penn (Cuco), Michael Wincott (Herberto), Pedro Armendariz Jr. (Reinaldo's Grandfather) and Vito Maria Schnabel (Teenage Reinaldo). A film that is not necessarily entertaining, and at times unpleasant to watch because of it's stark realism, `Before Night Falls' is, nevertheless, thought-provoking, riveting drama that is thoroughly engrossing. And it proves that beauty can indeed be found in the least likely of places. But it also makes you realize that it is up to each individual to care enough to seek it out, and to hopefully have the wisdom to realize it once it is found. And that's the real beauty of a film like this; it affords you the opportunity to do just that. I rate this one 10/10.

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32 out of 40 people found the following review useful:

Engaging, poetic, touching bio-pic about Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas.

8/10
Author: Ben_Cheshire from Oz
25 April 2004

Incredible central performance from Javier Bardem ties the film together and makes you really care what happens. Great supporting players: Sean Penn has one incredible scene early on, who had us convinced he was Cuban. We didn't at all recognise him. Johnny Depp plays two small parts, but two very memorable ones. Growly-voiced Michael Wincott (played the bad guy in The Crow and Along Came a Spider and The Doors' manager in The Doors) is memorable. Andrea di Stefano is great as a central antagonist of Reinaldo, as is the now-Hollywood-famous Olivier Martinez who plays a touching, platonic friend to Reinaldo.

Beautifully photographed and directed in an admirable manner that draws attention to style every now and then in a poetic way very fitting for a bio-pic about a poet, and at other times just utilises style to tells the story very well, and seem not to be fussing about style at all.

There are scenes here where the sound effects track stops and this gorgeous cello music by Carter Burwell (composer of Being John Malkovich, Meet Joe Black, Man who Wasn't There, with another beautiful score) plays while we watch Bardem sitting in a club while people dance around him, and the music tells us he is far away. It is a wonderful scene, akin to Kurosawa's use of music in the brilliant burning of the first castle scene in Ran.

The way the camera tells this story was so marvellous and slick (though using rough camera work to tell moments of uneasiness, importantly this is not over-used as it was in the recent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that i knew the filmmaker had been influenced by American filmmaking, but throughout i had no idea the guy actually WAS American! The TV program misleadingly told us it was a Cuban movie (which it is not - it is an American production with Spanish, Cuban and American actors)

I'm even more shocked considering this is the guy who made Basquiat, which i always thought was more a tele-movie, and more about art than about movie-style. Julian Schnabel, i now learn, was a neo-expressionist painter in the 80's! Basquiat, about an artist, perhaps was a movie where he was making the transition between art-language and movie-language. Before Night Falls uses traditional storytelling, to be sure, but it has such a spellbinding cinematic quality i felt sure its director was one with cinema on the brain. Perhaps Schnabel has caught the bug after all.

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35 out of 51 people found the following review useful:

In my top ten of all time.

10/10
Author: Rolo Della Guardia (The Love Dragon) from Toronto
21 August 2001

BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, directed by Julian Schnabel is the best movie made since SCHINDLER'S LIST, and just might surpass it.

There is hardly anything I would change about this movie, it is in my mind as perfect as they could have made it. The only thing that could have been better was going deeper into Bardem's character, but I don't think that they really needed to, because like in OUT OF AFRICA, the character is not gone into very deeply, but the performance of Meryl Streep, or in this case Javier Bardem makes you feel like you know Arenas. The tiniest nuance is played out beautifully by Bardem, who had to learn Cuban Spanish and English with a cuban accent as well as gain a lot of weight, and probably hours of thought put into his performance.

The writing is amazing, going from one event to the other, more about the author and what happens around him than an actual basic plotline. The music is terrific and well chosen, and Burwell's original score is the best original music in film history. The cinematography is innovative and excellent, audiences have seen few examples of the photography used in this film.

And to top it all off, Julian Schanbel does a perfect job of directing, showing Arenas's life with a beautiful new narrative technique, while at the same time showing the contrast of the Revolution and it's events and the beautiful Cuban country. As in the memoir by Arenas, the film is seen through Arenas's eyes, and it is like the whole world is gay, in a sense, and it's fabulous. I also love how when showing the documentary footage, and Bardem read excerpts of Arenas's writing, it was spoken in Spanish, being true to the author's work, while the beautiful Burwell music played.

Granted, this film is not for everyone, in fact I expect ninety percent of people to detest it, but to me, it is an amazing movie that is one of the few to get a ten out of ten from myself.

Absolutely fabulous, but if you like a basic, clear plotline with rising events, climactic end, action, and humour that comes out as jokes and not just funny situations and such, you won't like it. In fact, as I said, I expect most people reading this not to like it, but to me, it may be in my top five, should've won best picture.

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24 out of 31 people found the following review useful:

Powerful and Affecting

7/10
Author: eht5y from United States
22 June 2005

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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18 out of 20 people found the following review useful:

Slow but beautiful

8/10
Author: paul2001sw-1 (paul2001sw@yahoo.co.uk) from Saffron Walden, UK
28 August 2005

The little-discussed topic of the persecution of homosexuals in Castro's Cuba is the prevailing theme throughout Julan Schnabel's masterful film of the life of writer Reinaldo Arenas. But this is far more than a simple piece of political agit-prop; instead, it's a beautifully constructed movie about the artistic temperament but with plenty of the same quality itself; visually, the movie is consistently striking, and yet of a piece. There's also a fine performance from Javier Bardem in the lead role. What the film doesn't do very much is follow it's characters in real time for anything longer than the duration of a snapshot; this slightly distances the viewer from the mechanics of the drama, and in consequence, at times it feels slow. Instead, it communicates through images (and fragments of the writer's own poetry); and the scene where the hot air balloon rises through the roof of a ruined church is so perfectly created it's a work of art in itself. 'Before Night Falls' is not light entertainment; but it's seriously good.

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20 out of 25 people found the following review useful:

One of the few truly great...

10/10
Author: suzy q123 from United States
29 March 2001

... and original films to come out in 2001. In a year of cookie cutter banal stupid films (check your local papers to see what I mean) this film dares to have a point of view. Shot in one of the most interesting styles (or lack of styles) filled with interesting people who seem like they could really exist, this is a film that I would dare to call a work of art. Why aren't more hollywood movies this bold and interesting?

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18 out of 22 people found the following review useful:

Evocative film-making

7/10
Author: Chris_Docker from United Kingdom
17 June 2001

Evocative and moving story based on the life of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. The film has excellent acting from Javier Bardem (and smaller but equally excellent performances from Johnny Depp and Sean Penn), wonderful scenery and, most of all, powerful and moving snippets from the work of a novelist whose poetic powers can inspire and lift above the poverty of life or bring emotional poignancy to the depths. This is set in a country where, under Castro's rule, there is no "upper class" - and yet where brutal intolerance can be shown to any 'misfits'. Arenas happens to be homosexual, which is unacceptable, and his poetry extols natural beauty (which is, it seems, seen as counter-revolutionary). The writer survives torture and imprisonment but his works survive and the success of his novels prove an inspiration to him as he survives in abject conditions. The film is a bit slow to start, and occasionally meandering, but overall it provides a powerful piece of cinema.

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17 out of 21 people found the following review useful:

Many praises for a movie about freedom and artistic expression

10/10
Author: Preston-10 from Phoenix, Arizona
10 February 2001

Before Night Falls is a brilliantly devised and executed account about the famed Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas. The film documents his childhood as a peasant, his support for Castro's rebels as an idealist youth, and as a man, his struggles, not just as an independent thinker but also as a gay man living in Communist Cuba. Throughout the film we respond to his hopes, fears, and claustrophobia as we witness the persecution of a true artist.

As a student of Latin American History and Literature I was pleased with the way the film handled the historical context of Arenas' time. The political context of Before Night Falls shouldn't come as any surprise. The artistic, social and political invisibility of gays in Cuba under the Cuban Revolution represented a dark stain on the revolutionary record. In 1965 Fidel Castro told Lee Lockwood (in Castro's Cuba, Cuba's Fidel) that `we would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant Communist must be' In the mid-1960's, the infamous UMAP work camps (Unidades Militares de Auyuda a la Producción) sought to rehabilitate what they perceived as alleged antisocial elements. This is an event that is accurately depicted in Schnabel's film. The purges and denunciations of homosexuals continued into the 1980's. Today in Cuba discrimination against gays still represents a major problem. The revolution dealt with gender and racial discrimination but not with discrimination against gays. This is all documented with stunning use of archival footage and reference accounts from Arenas' autobiography.

Any review of the film would be incomplete without mentioning Javier Bardem's work. I have seen a lot of movies and few performances are even in the same league as Bardem's. I was fascinated with how he carried this film with a performance that must have been very difficult for him to adjust to. The supporting work by Johnny Depp should also be praised. His dual performance, for me, accurately identified how many within Castro's army may have used their positions as a front to deny their own sexuality as well. Overall, I was very impressed with this film and I highly recommend it

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15 out of 20 people found the following review useful:

**** 1/2 Stunning

Author: Bil-3 from Toronto, Ontario
27 March 2001

Gorgeous adaptation of Reinaldo Arenas' best-selling autobiography of the same name. Javier Bardem gives a towering performance as Arenas, the famous Cuban poet who found himself constantly in a state of being unwanted by the world around him, and yet still full of the ability to see the beauty in it. Using stock footage of Castro's military-ruled Cuba, a haunting score by Carter Burwell (with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson), and many cameos by famous actors (Sean Penn being the only one that really misfires, Michael Wincott being an exceptionally good one), director Julian Schanbel has created one of the most touching, affecting and polished film works of the whole year. Johnny Depp stands out in a small role dressed completely in drag (and he's gorgeous!)

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4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:

A Lyrical Fight for Survival, without the Survival

9/10
Author: secondtake from United States
30 May 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Before Night Falls (2000)

A Lyrical Fight for Survival, without the Survival

Filmed with such undistracting and unrelenting imagination, Before Night Falls is not only beautiful and seamless, it's a surprise, frame after frame. And it manages to keep flowing visually, with invention, without distracting from the personal plight of the central character, the writer Reinaldo Arenas. Add the full blooded performance by Javier Bardem, who is something of a one man show, and the movie is intrinsically special.

Julian Schnabel is turning out to be a better movie director than artist, maybe because his tendency toward formal invention made his art contrived while in the movie world this formalism is embedded with more evident meaning, and so it has something to support beyond its own effects. His subjects show a consistency that reveals an artistic devotion to himself, yes, as an auteur, or as a concerned person. Herzog might be another good example, offhand. From the flawed Basquiat to the compelling (and depressing) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel digs into those people who are pushed to be exceptional. All three of these films, at least, are about individuals with enormous talent and resolve, but they are all three also driven by circumstance to be even greater than themselves, or to make themselves into something beyond what even they expected. All of Schnabel's films are artfully made without being indulgent--even the exaggerated special effects used in Diving Bell are necessary.

And all three of these examples end in affecting, very personal tragedy. After the Lou Reed concert film diversion (which I haven't seen), it'll be worth watching what this relative newcomer to the movies brings out next.

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