Published Sep 01, 2000Like his first film Basquiat, artist/director Julian Schnabel's second cinematic effort is a creatively fictionalised look at the life and world of an artist. This time around, the subject is exiled Cuban writer/poet Reynaldo Arenas. The film shows Arenas' life from childhood in pre-revolutionary Cuba through his coming of age during the revolution and his adult life being oppressed, censored, jailed, and finally exiled because of his writing and his homosexuality, concluding with his final years in New York City. The film is primarily focused on recreating the poetic existence that Arenas evokes in his writing. To that end, Schnabel exhibits a non-linear fantasy structure that makes the actual details of Arenas' life difficult to discern. Instead a conventional bio-pic, we are treated to an imaginary artistic rendering of the subject's outer and inner life. The photography is gorgeous and vivid, seamlessly blending stock footage of 1950s and '60s Cuba with painstaking recreations built for the film. Much of the text of the film comes from Arenas' writing itself, particularly from his last book Before Night Falls, on which the movie is loosely based. Despite the original language of the material and almost the entire cast being Spanish, the majority of the film is inexplicably in English, which makes some of the dialogue difficult to decipher. Fortunately, lead actor Javier Bardem (Almodovar's Live Flesh) is brilliant in any language as he thoroughly inhabits the body and soul of Reynaldo Arenas. Also of note are brief and funny cameos from both Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. With its striking words and images, Before Night Falls is exceptional at telling the story of Arenas' life long struggle to let beauty prevail in the face of oppression.