Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
Made in English, by an American, and shot mostly in Mexico, Before Night Falls may nevertheless be the first dramatic feature to take us deep inside the lush, crumbling fortress of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. This is only the second movie by Schnabel, the New York painter turned filmmaker, but in both its teeming, documentary-like visual splendor and its storytelling grace, it represents a quantum leap Before Night Falls seems to burst the very shackles of the form. Arenas’ life zigzags before us in a manner as heady and unpredictable as it must have felt to the man who lived it. — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly, 12/1/01
Clouds of parrots, wind-rattled palms, torrents of tropical rain: Julian Schnabel, painter and director, colors his cinematic canvas with the sensual images of Reinaldo Arenas, the gifted Cuban author portrayed in Before Night Falls. Inspired by Arenas’ richly detailed poetry and prose, this seductive film chronicles the writer’s ceaseless quest for freedom – artistic, sexual and political.
When we meet Arenas, he’s a toddler, confined to a playpen that is nothing more than a muddy hole in the ground. There he sits, buck naked and happily getting acquainted with Mother Earth, his first muse and the most important woman in his life. As a teenager, he leaves his own mother (Olatz López Garmendia, the director’s wife) to join Fidel Castro’s revolution.
His first novel, Singing From the Well, wins praise from the government’s cultural institutions – but it quickly becomes clear that individuality has no place in this workers’ paradise. Eventually he and his circle of gay intellectuals are hounded, rounded up and imprisoned for their sexuality and their counter-revolutionary stance.
The movie boasts an extraordinary performance by the sultry Spanish actor Javier Bardem, a major star in his native land. Bardem offers a tender, accessible depiction of the character as a gifted intellectual, cruelly punished for his passions, his heedlessness and his courage…
Johnny Depp, disturbingly effective in a dual role, plays a flouncy imprisoned transvestite and a sadistic but flirtatious prison guard. Italian actor Andrea di Stefano is devilishly amoral as the fickle bisexual who introduces Arenas to Havana’s flourishing gay subculture. Olivier Martinez brings both potency and poignancy to the role of Lázaro Gómez Carriles, a close friend of Arenas’ and co-writer of this screenplay. — Rita Kempley, Washington Post, 2/2/01