Julian Schnabel's decision to follow his elliptical 1996 biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat with a film about Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas might intimate a morbid allegiance to the cult of the dead artist. But beyond vague structural similarities between the two films, there is little in Before Night Falls (which opened Dec. 22) to suggest that the cinematic possibilities that drew Schnabel to Arenas were the same that had drawn him to Basquiat.
Schnabel's self-conscious, intermittently beautiful movie about Basquiat's rapid rise and fall seemed prompted as much by the painter-turned-director's desire to satirize the seductive and treacherous '80s art world as by his interest in Samo's psychological disintegration. Not only did Schnabel inscribe himself in the film, but his use of found footage, dabbed in to capture Basquiat's inner life, presumably told us as much about Schnabel's imagination as his subject's. Fortunately, in Before Night Falls, Schnabel the artist recedes to the background, allowing Schnabel the filmmaker to hauntingly evoke the temporal and tonal shifts of Arenas's posthumously published autobiography, from which Schnabel, Cunningham O'Keefe, and Lazaro Gomez Carriles (Arenas's last close friend) adapted the screenplay.
Born in Oriente Province, Cuba, in 1943, Arenas was raised, mostly by his grandmother, in rural penury. By the age of eight, he was having sex with other boys (so he later claimed); at fourteen, he joined the resistance movement against Batista and, by twenty, had written the first of his nine hallucinatory novels, the only one published in Cuba. During the '70s, he fell victim to Castro's programmatic persecution of homosexuals: The "antirevolutionary" themes of Arenas's writings and his refusal to apologize for having had sex with, by his count, 5,000 men led to his incarceration in the notorious El Morro prison. He was eventually coerced into repudiating his beliefs and then allowed to leave Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. On December 7, 1990, debilitated by AIDS, he committed suicide in his Manhattan apartment, overdosing on sleeping pills. Schnabel's film shows Carriles (Olivier Martinez) smothering his ailing friend with an "I Love NY" bag--a poetic liberty that Arenas, denied medical insurance, woul d surely have applauded.
No less than Sunset Boulevard, Before Night Falls is a memoir from the grave, a tale told by a dead man. It is narrated by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who appears as Arenas after Vito Maria Schnabel, the director's son, has played him as a kid in scenes of elemental peasant life--and dawning lust--that look as if they were filmed in Cuba in the '40s. An Almodovar alumnus, the burly Bardem has softened his presence here; his Arenas is a gentle, far from priapic figure.
As Arenas joins the revolution in Havana, Schnabel intercuts his journey with newsreel footage and offers fragments of Arenas's writing in voice-over so that the film takes on the nostalgic aura of a literary documentary. Sensual seaside idylls resemble '60s home movies; a nocturnal romp in which Arenas and his friends sport naked with soldiers suggests a gay soft-core flick. All are enfolded into a dreamy parade of memories--and so, with biting irony, are sequences depicting a McCarthy-esque homosexual witch-hunt, Arenas's trumped-up arrest for "molestation," and a brutal spell of solitary confinement in El Morro. Here, Johnny Depp turns in cameos as both a preening transvestite who smuggles Arenas's writings out of prison in his rectum and, later, a sexually sadistic army officer.
Before Night Falls concludes with Arenas's torturous physical demise, but not before Schnabel has segued from lyrical drama--mordantly perfected in a scene where Arenas's duplicitous ex-lover steals and crashes the hot-air balloon in which Arenas and his friends were to flee Cuba--to mock documentary (Bardem's Arenas talking about his life in New York). In seamlessly weaving Arenas's memories and fantasies with archival and simulated documentary footage, Schnabel reveals how "reality" and "fiction" coalesce, facilitating a more truthful portrait of a poet's life than one on which a filmmaker's own preconceptions have been imposed. The result is not only a triumph of form and style but a movie that single-handedly redeems that hubristic late-'90s phenomenon, the SoHo auteur.
GRAHAM FULLER is a film columnist at Interview magazine and editor of Showtime, the Sunday entertainment section of the New York Daily News. The editor of the director's compendiums Potter on Potter and Loach on Loach (Faber & Faber, 1993 and 1998), Fuller has also written for the New York Times, Film Comment, and Sight and Sound. He is currently working on a book about the career and legacy of director Josef von Sternberg. In this issue, Fuller reviews Julian Schnabel's film Before Night Falls (Fine Line Features, 2000), a portrait of the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas.