Schnabel paints a picture of the desperate, bizarre life of a Cuban dissident author in Before Night Falls
New York artist Julian Schnabel made an auspicious film debut in 1996 with his savvy biopic of fellow artist and '80s superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat, who crashed and burned in the same go-go decade that made Schnabel a millionaire. From a small coterie of artists, including David Salle (Search and Destroy) and Cindy Sherman (Office Killer), who tried their hands at filmmaking in the '90s, Schnabel's Basquiat proved by far the most notable.
Schnabel returns to his recently adopted celluloid palette in the far more sophisticated sophomore effort, Before Night Falls. Another exercise in biography, which surveys the life of an alienated artist, Before Night Falls follows the life of Cuban dissident writer and homosexual Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem), from his impoverished childhood and persecution in Castro's Cuba until his 1990 death from AIDS after fleeing to New York.
Before Night Falls is nothing if not comprehensive, opening with Reinaldo, in a rather heavy-handed bit of foreshadowing, as a toddler playing in the pit of a muddy, freshly dug grave. Reinaldo quickly matures from a wild adolescent who has his first sex in a brothel, to an adult renegade determined to serve with the anti-Batista rebels. Like many of his compatriots, Reinaldo at first thrives in the midst of the sexual revolution that erupts in the shadows of Castro's revolution, haunting Cuba's glorious beaches and cruising the countryside in convertibles.
But sunny idylls on Cuba's sugary white sands quickly turn dark under Castro's persecution of homosexuals in the 1970s, and Reinaldo, the fledgling writer and budding homosexual, finds himself a handy mark for persecution. As the film progresses, its tone becomes increasingly melancholy, thick with despair and laced with touches of the bizarre. Dire circumstances topple like dominoes: Reinaldo is arrested on a false charge of molestation, escapes jail by jumping into the sea and spends time hiding out in the countryside before being recaptured.
In one of the film's bleaker passages, Reinaldo is thrown into a subterranean nightmare of a prison where he writes and pens letters for his illiterate cellmates. There Reinaldo is able to smuggle one of his manuscripts out with the aid of a fetching drag queen. A rudely funny vignette — one of several that invests Before Night Falls with a bawdy, pitch wit — has Johnny Depp in drag as the talented prison transvestite "Bon Bon," whose capacious rectum allows him to pass roll, after roll ... after roll of Reinaldo's manuscript into the waiting arms of a prison visitor.
Before Night Falls is laced with many such elements of the surreal; Sean Penn as a scabby Cuban peasant who gives the child Reinaldo a lift on his horse-drawn cart, and Depp, in a dual role as a sadistic army officer. At one point, after being spit out of prison, Reinaldo shacks up with a Fellini contingent of artists and midgets with a plan to escape Cuba Wizard of Oz-style in a hot air balloon. Such touches of the absurd add to the air of futility and helplessness that dogs Reinaldo throughout his life, a futility Schnabel does dreamy, surreal justice. A plan to escape via balloon seems as good as any, as good as Reinaldo's attempt years earlier in a fit of desperation, to float to Miami in an inner tube.
But even Reinaldo's eventual escape to New York in the 1980 Mariel boatlift does not offer the promise of artistic salvation. In New York, Arenas and his last remaining friend, Lazaro Gomez Carriles (who also co-scripted the film), are still outsiders, considered "stateless" by the American government. Schnabel captures a despondency in the exile's life; Reinaldo's comrade and roommate works as a doorman at a posh Manhattan apartment building while the men lead a bare-bones life without much of a future, as faceless and drifting as they were in Cuba.
A memorable film for not only demonstrating Schnabel's virtuosity as he moves from visual artist to filmmaker, Before Night Falls is also a pitiless, often brutally funny film, not about artistic triumph, but creativity's long hard road, and an artistic spirit eventually snuffed out despite a vigorous fight.