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Before Night Falls  

Cast: Javier Bardem...............Reinaldo Arenas
Olivier Martinez............Lazaro Gomez
Carilles Andrea Di Stefano...........Pepe Malas
Johnny Depp.................Bon Bon/Lieutenant Victor
Sean Penn...................Cuco Sanchez
Michael Wincott.............Herberto Zorilla Ochoa
Olatz Lopez Garmendia.......Reinaldo's Mother
Vito Maria Schnabel.........Teenage Reinaldo
Najwa Nimri.................Fina Correa
Hector Babenco..............Virgilio Pinera
Jerzy Skolimowski...........Professor
Sebastian Silva.............Reinaldo's Father

Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Written by: Cunningham O'Keefe, Lazaro Gomez Garriles, and Julian Schnabel
Rated R for strong sexual content, some language and brief violence. Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Before Night Falls
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There's a common misperception that the only true artists are of the starving variety. Any artist who has achieved a level of monetary success or fame is often viewed as having "sold out" his or her artistic integrity for a taste of stardom. This is certainly not true, as we are well aware that any child who first picks up a paintbrush, pen, musical instrument, etc. does so with the sublime hope that one day many will be captivated by the form of art eminating from the deepest regions of their soul. No one expresses themselves with the desire that their expression will never be recognized.

Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" recounts the true story of Cuban writer, poet, and exile Reinaldo Arenas; and what I really admired about the film is its depiction of a true artistic talent searching mightily for an avenue of freedom, a tunnel through which his pulchritudinous words of longing may reach the souls of those in need. Expression's search for freedom is displayed with unmitigated certitude in the life story of Arenas.

The movie traces Reinaldo's entire life, beginning with his poverty-stricken childhood on a farm in Cuba's Oriente province, where the anonymity of his family's indigence formed the spine of his artistic freedom. The young boy immediately discovered the need to follow his impulses, both with regards to his poetry as well as his eventual curiosity into the realm of homosexuality. In 1958, while still in his teens, his family moved to the town of Holguin where he joined Castro's revolution to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Upon success of the revolution, Reinaldo was able to thrive in the new government's ambitious program to educate its youth. While attending the University of Havana, he realized that a sexual revolution was taking place at the same time of the governmental revolution, and was subsequently introduced to Havana's growing homosexual subculture.

For a while, his pursuit of creative expression was proceeding nicely. He was introduced to some of Cuba's most lauded writers, including Virgilio Pinera. The completion of his first novel came at the ripe age of twenty. It was called "Singing From the Well" and won First Mention in the country's Cirilo Villaverde National Competition.

However, "Singing From the Well" would be Reinaldo's only book published in his native Cuba, as the government had begun a crackdown on artists and homosexuals, rounding them up and shipping them off to labor camps. But the tenacious Arenas continued to write, and ultimately completed "Hallucinations," his second novel that was successfully smuggled out of Cuba and published in France. Naturally, this earned him the antipathy of Castro's regime. During the subsequent years following the publishing of his second novel, Reinaldo Arenas was subject to constant persecution; the police searched his rooms and confiscated his work. For years he suffered the effects of being an artist and a homosexual in a country whose government despised both. Then in 1980, his chance to escape presented itself in the Mariel Harbor boatlift, where Castro allowed homosexuals, criminals, and mental patients to leave Cuba. A clever last second change to his passport granted Arenas the ability to leave undetected. He settled in New York as an exile, although free to continue scribing his thoughts and emotions. He went on to write over twenty books, including ten novels in addition to numerous essays, poems, and stage plays.

Javier Bardem ("Jamon jamon", "Live Flesh"), the Spanish actor with sad, brooding eyes brilliantly captures Reinaldo Arenas' bedrock introspection and his imperishable need to express himself freely; yet wisely balances those qualities with the artist's cognizance of the oppressive situation engulfing him. He possesses a distinct need to flee, but remains aware of the dire consequences should he maintain too solid a defiance. His anger and passion fuel his writing, but his wits are what ultimately allow him to escape. Bardem successfully subjugates the juxtaposition.

A visual artist himself, director Julian Schnabel is on familiar ground here, having also directed the movie "Basquait" about the famed troubled painter. He understands that films about artists needn't be about their artwork, but rather about their struggle for acceptance without sacrificing the integrity illuminating their soulful creations. The ability of true artists comes naturally to them, emotional acceptance often does not. With "Before Night Falls," Schnabel understands that the story itself coupled with the backdrop it is set against clearly accentuates the struggle for all artists. Talent is what may be generally appreciated and discussed, but it is the struggle of people like Reinaldo Arenas that are cherished.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

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