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Before Night Falls
cast: Javier Bardem, Oliver Martinez, John Ortiz, Johnny Depp, and Andrea Di Stafano

director: Julian Schnabel

128 minutes (15) 2000
20th Century Fox VHS retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by James Brooke-Smith
Reynaldo Arenas, superbly portrayed by Javier Bardem, receives only a special mention in the 1964 writers' union awards for new authors. He has written the best new book in Cuba that year but does not receive first prize because his work is at odds with the state's narrow blueprint for literary validity. Invited to meet a sympathetic judge after the ceremony he is told, "beauty is the enemy of dictatorship." This observation echoes throughout Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel's biopic of gay Cuban poet Arenas. In presenting the life of Arenas he charts the intricacies of the struggle between freedom and repression in an individual life, wrapping his narrative in a delicate web of image, poetry and music to create a simultaneously tender and powerful ode to freedom.
   Before Night Falls is resolute in its focus on the links between the public and the private. Arenas's journey from peasant upbringings to embattled poet is inextricably set within the turbulent history of his homeland. With his fluid camera work, soft dissolves and natural imagery Schnabel dramatises the poet's attempt to find a place entirely free from social restraint. The film bristles with this tension between control and release, marvellously expressed in a scene set in the early days of the revolution where a beach party is interrupted by an army patrol. An edgy exchange between soldiers and revellers teeters excruciatingly on the brink of violence, until their collusion is made evident and potential violence gives way to erotic play. This tense duality that exists between authority and subversion is a disquieting presence throughout the film, further reinforced by Johnny Depp's fine cameo performance as both the transvestite prisoner Bon Bon and a sadistic prison officer.
   Schnabel's freewheeling direction is mirrored in his approach to plot. Its momentum is provided by the interlinked development of the revolutionary government, its progression from radical social experiment to totalitarian repression, and the poet's search for freedom. Arenas' life unfolds before us with a kind of dreamtime logic. We drift in and out of episodes in the writer's development, equal attention being given to the everyday and the extraordinary. Indeed, Schnabel's camera transfigures everything, allowing mundane moments to body forth with beauty and impress themselves with a force equal to more momentous incidents. Cuba itself shimmers onto the screen in resplendent colour (interestingly the majority of the film was shot in Mexico's Yucatan region). Its deep skies and tangled vegetation provide the natural touchstone for the aberrations of state repression. Sound and music are also deployed to maximum effect. The film's signature refrain comes in the form of a sweetly abrasive cello and mournful strings, lending the vivid colours of the film a haunted, mysterious air. Often ambient noise is edited high into the film's soundtrack, grounding the director's visionary approach in the here and now of reality. Falling rain and lapping waves are key sounds in this film. Both reinforce Schnabel's aesthetic of fluidity and hint at a tantalisingly close state of natural freedom.
   However, the major triumph of Before Night Falls lies with Bardem's stunning lead performance. Bardem has long been a star of Spanish language productions, his role in Almodovar's Live Flesh winning him the most international plaudits, but hopefully with this performance we will see him make the deserved step up to the global A-list. I was transfixed throughout by his tender, delicate and spirited rendition of the troubled artist. This role confirms his immense range in its difference from any of the characters he has played before. So central is his performance to its functioning it is impossible to imagine the film without him.
   Schnabel has come such a long way since his first film Basquiat (1996). One of the many enfants terribles of the 1980s' New York art scene, his cinematic debut was marred by a series of unsatisfactory performances and a failure to engage the viewer in a similarly freeform work. With Before Night Falls he has managed to reign in the worst excesses of the previous film's open structure, tightening his grip on plot and imagery, whilst managing to retain a free and innovative approach. However, be warned. The film is long, and might struggle to hold all viewers attention throughout. Without the driving force of a conventional narrative the director has a hard job to carry us through to the end. But without doubt Before Night Falls repays our efforts in its colour, delicacy and strength.

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