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Art shines in Before Night Falls

BY PETER KEOUGH


BEFORE NIGHT FALLS
Directed by Julian Schnabel. Written by Cunningham O’Keefe, Lázaro Gómez Carriles, and Julian Schnabel. With Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Michael Wincott, Najwa Nimri, Hector Babenco, Olatz López Garmendía, and Vito Maria Schnabel. A Fine Line Features release.

Signs and wonders

Julian Schnabel, painting wunderkind of the ’80s, sees signs. “There’s some crazy writing, it looks like, in the tree out there,” He’s pointing to the Christmas lights in the Public Gardens as viewed from his Four Seasons Hotel suite. “It looks like a word. Like ‘mañana.’ ”

Could be. Schnabel puts stock in these little epiphanies, and it was a chance viewing of a short documentary about oppressed Cuban artists that got him involved in Before Night Falls, his acclaimed second feature about gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Then he read Arenas’s autobiography, Before Night Falls, and all his other works, got in touch with Arenas’s long-time friend Lázaro Gómez Carriles, collaborated with him on a screenplay, cast Spanish actor Javier Bardem, and made the film with $12 million of his own money. Signs can accomplish wonders.

That serendipitous, free-associative approach is also evident in the film’s style. “People don’t usually equate that with narration,” Schnabel observes, “but I think it is. It’s emotional narration as well as discursive narration, and I don’t have a hierarchical take on the two. I think that the dialogue in the movie is just like people talking, rather being than designed to give you the striving meaning of each scene. It’s accumulative, like a life, and at the end you understand what happened.”

Schnabel, who has no problem with expressing his opinions, explains his own moviemaking by comparing it to another film about a controversial writer, Philip Kaufman’s take on the Marquis de Sade in Quills. “I think Quills is a nice movie. Geoffrey Rush gives an excellent performance, it’s intelligent, what he’s got to say, all the reasoning is excellent, but you don’t care about the guy. I didn’t care about him. All those people looked fake to me. Joaquin Phoenix is an excellent actor, everybody’s excellent, but it looks all stagy and fake. I don’t think they have anything to do with each other, these two movies.

“Yeah, they’re both about censorship in some way, and hypocrisy, but I just see a sort of humanity or humanness about my film that is much more real. This was like a pastiche or something, and mine was more like a Battle of Algiers. I thought I was showing life, rather than having to talk about it. It was about his interior life, really, about what literature meant for him.”

What it meant for Arenas in part was a lot of trouble, including long stints in brutalizing prisons. In the wake of the prolonged Elián González controversy, does Schnabel see his largely negative portrayal of Cuba as having an influence on people’s attitudes toward that country?

“No. This happened way before Elián ever showed up. I think they should get rid of the embargo. I think it’s the stupidest thing in the world. But I’m not a politician. I don’t know what’s going on here or there. This is just my investigation into Reinaldo’s life. Going to Cuba. Seeing the Cubans there. Seeing what they’re up against. It was not just a historical story but a story that needed to be told because those things could’ve happened right now.

“I think Reinaldo had a really hard time. Reinaldo probably would’ve known that I would go to Cuba to research this thing and he probably wouldn’t have talked to me. It’s very hard for someone to understand who hasn’t been stuck in a box, or tortured, or really made marginalized — once you’ve been in prison for six months there, you’re like a criminal. I mean, you won a National Book Award in France in 1969 and your prize is to go to jail? Reinaldo wasn’t writing political essays. He and the others were writing about their imagination. Anything that was apolitical was ‘counterrevolutionary.’ So it became political because it was apolitical. One of the characters says that Castro couldn’t govern this thing called beauty, so he had to eliminate it. That’s an incredible idea. Basically, a dictatorship is unæsthetic. I think the movie is about the drums of militarism trying to beat down the rhythm of poetry and life.

“I think it’s about the artist as a free man. It shouldn’t just be that — I think it could be any human being, entitled to their imagination.”

Not that I’m complaining, being a member of the profession myself, but a number of recent high-profile movies have focused on writers. Wonder Boys, Almost Famous, Quills — each endeavors to capture this quintessentially subjective process in the two-dimensional medium of film. Despite their other virtues, none of them really succeeds. Perhaps because it’s made by an artist, broken-crockery expert Julian Schnabel, whose overlooked first film, Basquiat, roughly captured the torment and vision of the tragic ’80s painter of the title, Before Night Falls comes closest to depicting not only the creative process but the entire life of an artist — and, more important, the will of an individual to prevail over the tyranny that would oppress him.

It’s the true story of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who’s played with utter conviction and disarming playfulness by Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Arenas had the triple misfortune to be a lover of beauty, a lover of freedom, and a lover of men in Castro’s Cuba. Born into abject rural poverty and recognized early on as one of the country’s best writers, he was passed over nonetheless by the powers that be and through the ’60s and ’70s got deeper into trouble with the authorities for his uncompromising prose, lifestyle, and attitude. He smuggled manuscripts out and won awards in other countries, but in Cuba he was hounded and imprisoned. He escaped to the US in the 1980 Mariel boatlift; 10 years later he died in poverty and obscurity, a victim of AIDS.

A sad story? Hardly. Schnabel and Bardem capture their hero’s indomitable spirit and imagination through Arenas’s own words, startling images, and a layered free-associative narrative that imitates the workings of memory and experience. Night re-creates and vindicates not just this tragic Cuban writer’s soul but everyone’s.

Arenas is an unlikely Everyman, and he earns that distinction through persevering in his own uniqueness. This is the film’s chief virtue and weakness, for the hero’s polymorphous, narcissistic, even solipsistic universe subsumes everything else — lovers, family, friends, history itself. And the narrative continuity and coherence is a victim to his exuberant self-indulgence. From the fecund early image of the infant Arenas peering over the lip of the grave-like ditch that served as his cradle to the macabre use of an “I LOVE NY” plastic shopping bag in the end, his experience defines all, the flux around him serving merely as inspiration or restraint.

It helps, then, that Bardem puts in the best acting performance of 2000. Chimerical, canny, joyous even in suffering, his Arenas is tough enough to endure years of neglect and brutish persecution with his joy and integrity intact, yet he remains to the end an infantile egoist who eats baby food. Schnabel also has a gift for rendering epiphanies: the stand of trees on which the teenage Arenas (played by Vito Maria Schnabel, the director’s son) carved his first poems; the triumph of Castro’s rebellion, here a collage of bright banners, soaring prose, and handsome men in cars; the terror of a nocturnal raid by soldiers that ends in an orgiastic romp; the Oz-like inappropriateness of a giant balloon in the roofless nave of a church full of fugitives.

On the other hand, it would be nice if we could keep track of certain details, like which dark-haired, moustached young man is Arenas involved with this time? (There are at least three; the third, Lázaro Gómez Carriles, is played by Olivier Martinez, who was Arenas’s last companion and Schnabel’s collaborator on the screenplay.) And the namedropping cameos don’t help: the sudden appearance of Sean Penn with a gold tooth and a Señor Wences accent or Johnny Depp in drag distracts from the subject. These stars stick in the mind as more germane characters, like Arenas’s mother (Olatz López Garmendía, Schnabel’s wife), come and go without much explanation, or key events take place, such as Arenas’s attempt to escape to Miami by inner tube, which leaves the film likewise lost at sea.

Not quite, though — Night is always centered, to exhilarating or suffocating effect, in the consciousness of its hero. It’s a reminder that politics is always and ultimately personal, and that art not only must confront politics but can define it.

Not that I’m complaining, being a member of the profession myself, but a number of recent high-profile movies have focused on writers. Wonder Boys, Almost Famous, Quills — each endeavors to capture this quintessentially subjective process in the two-dimensional medium of film. Despite their other virtues, none of them really succeeds. Perhaps because it’s made by an artist, broken-crockery expert Julian Schnabel, whose overlooked first film, Basquiat, roughly captured the torment and vision of the tragic ’80s painter of the title, Before Night Falls comes closest to depicting not only the creative process but the entire life of an artist — and, more important, the will of an individual to prevail over the tyranny that would oppress him.

It’s the true story of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who’s played with utter conviction and disarming playfulness by Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Arenas had the triple misfortune to be a lover of beauty, a lover of freedom, and a lover of men in Castro’s Cuba. Born into abject rural poverty and recognized early on as one of the country’s best writers, he was passed over nonetheless by the powers that be and through the ’60s and ’70s got deeper into trouble with the authorities for his uncompromising prose, lifestyle, and attitude. He smuggled manuscripts out and won awards in other countries, but in Cuba he was hounded and imprisoned. He escaped to the US in the 1980 Mariel boatlift; 10 years later he died in poverty and obscurity, a victim of AIDS.

A sad story? Hardly. Schnabel and Bardem capture their hero’s indomitable spirit and imagination through Arenas’s own words, startling images, and a layered free-associative narrative that imitates the workings of memory and experience. Night re-creates and vindicates not just this tragic Cuban writer’s soul but everyone’s.

Arenas is an unlikely Everyman, and he earns that distinction through persevering in his own uniqueness. This is the film’s chief virtue and weakness, for the hero’s polymorphous, narcissistic, even solipsistic universe subsumes everything else — lovers, family, friends, history itself. And the narrative continuity and coherence is a victim to his exuberant self-indulgence. From the fecund early image of the infant Arenas peering over the lip of the grave-like ditch that served as his cradle to the macabre use of an “I LOVE NY” plastic shopping bag in the end, his experience defines all, the flux around him serving merely as inspiration or restraint.

It helps, then, that Bardem puts in the best acting performance of 2000. Chimerical, canny, joyous even in suffering, his Arenas is tough enough to endure years of neglect and brutish persecution with his joy and integrity intact, yet he remains to the end an infantile egoist who eats baby food. Schnabel also has a gift for rendering epiphanies: the stand of trees on which the teenage Arenas (played by Vito Maria Schnabel, the director’s son) carved his first poems; the triumph of Castro’s rebellion, here a collage of bright banners, soaring prose, and handsome men in cars; the terror of a nocturnal raid by soldiers that ends in an orgiastic romp; the Oz-like inappropriateness of a giant balloon in the roofless nave of a church full of fugitives.

On the other hand, it would be nice if we could keep track of certain details, like which dark-haired, moustached young man is Arenas involved with this time? (There are at least three; the third, Lázaro Gómez Carriles, is played by Olivier Martinez, who was Arenas’s last companion and Schnabel’s collaborator on the screenplay.) And the namedropping cameos don’t help: the sudden appearance of Sean Penn with a gold tooth and a Señor Wences accent or Johnny Depp in drag distracts from the subject. These stars stick in the mind as more germane characters, like Arenas’s mother (Olatz López Garmendía, Schnabel’s wife), come and go without much explanation, or key events take place, such as Arenas’s attempt to escape to Miami by inner tube, which leaves the film likewise lost at sea.

Not quite, though — Night is always centered, to exhilarating or suffocating effect, in the consciousness of its hero. It’s a reminder that politics is always and ultimately personal, and that art not only must confront politics but can define it.