Dir: Julian Schnabel. US. 2000. 131 mins.
Prod co: Grandview Pictures. Int'l sales: Overseas FilmGroup (+1 310 855 1199). Prod: Jon Kilik. Scr: Cunningham O'Keefe, Lazaro Gomez-Carriles, Julian Schnabel. DoPs: Xavier Perez-Grobet, Guillermo Rosas. Editor: Michael Berenbaum. Music: Carter Burwell, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson. Main cast: Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea di Stefano, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Michael Wincott, Hector Babenco.
One of the films that generated the biggest pre-Venice buzz - the film has now been acquired by Fine Line Features for North America and Overseas FilmGroup for international - Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls is a powerful, moving biopic of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Given Schnabel's former day job - as number one NY brat-pack painter - the film is less mannered than might be expected; certainly less so than the director's first feature, Basquiat, though it also lacks that film's stylistic range and desecratory verve. Commercially, Before Night Falls should represent an important step forward for Schnabel; where Basquiat languished, the new film looks to break out of the arthouse ghetto on the dual ticket of distribution muscle and critical acclaim.
Arenas came to literary and sexual awareness with the Cuban Revolution. Though he was initially swept up in the euphoria, with a successful first book to his name, it was not long before Arenas was targeted by the regime's gradual but inexorable crackdown on his two favourite activities: unrestrained literary expression and unrestrained love of other men. Javier Bardem puts in a stunning performance as Arenas, capturing the innocence (not to say ingenuousness) of the man, who survived imprisonment, torture, betrayal by friends, an attempt to float to Florida on an inner tube and the death and disappearance of fellow writers. Spot-the-star cameos by Sean Penn and Johnny Depp (who plays, at different times, a sadistic corporal and a tattooed transvestite) will boost the film's pulling power.
For all its bravura, Before Night Falls drags slightly at times; honing it to nearer ninety minutes might have been an idea. The market-friendly decision to have all the characters speak English - though with a broad Cuban accent - grates at first, but soon becomes second nature; it is neatly reversed when Arenas breaks into Spanish towards the end, before the ravages of AIDS drive him to suicide. This New York section is shot in a more grainy, hand-held style; the rest of the film has an understated, dark, colour-saturated feel, in line with the crumbling beauty but also the menace of post-capitalist Havana. It's very different from the city of Buena Vista Social Club; but look for this film to reach the same crossover audience.