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Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem) is a boy from the Cuban countryside with a gift for writing and a passion for life. He leaves his mother and ventures into Havana just after the revolution has swept Castro to power. He throws himself into his writing and strikes some early success; but his homosexuality soon brings him to the attention of the authorities. Although his friend Lazaro (Olivier Martinez) is more discreet, Reinaldo decides to defy the regime after his second novel is banned and has to be smuggled out of the country. But the powers of the totalitarian state are soon brought to bear on the dissident writer.

Offering echoes with the subject matter of his first film, Basquiat, Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls is a haunting reflection of the life of a poet. Set on a tumultuous backdrop of revolutionary Cuba, Schnabel carefully creates a complex, rich mood and atmosphere. He sets the scene first and foremost, even before establishing where the tale is going to take us. The grainy look of the film, coupled with the integration of real life footage, gives it a harsh reality that fascinates. Here is a man who was born to write and a role Javier Bardem was born to play. Bardem, with his handsome Adonis-like features, offers such intricacy and variance in his performance. He is strong, individual, walks with a slightly effeminate flounce and dazzles with his unflinching gaze. This is a troubled, tragic life on display; we are always kept a little at arms length. It’s a powerful film that is greatly affecting, but I often found it difficult to understand Bardem’s strong accent. This is definitely a distraction, as I was straining to grasp some of the passages—and at times missing some crucial dialogue. I love the way the narrative naturally turns to Spanish when the prose is read, often depicting images from the past or the imagination with Carter Burwell’s music soaring in the background. In fact, the music plays a big part and there’s a great array of tunes to complement the surrounds. All the performances are excellent, and two cameos offer particular interest—Sean Penn’s peasant and Johnny Depp’s jailed drag queen and cruel prison attendant. The beguiling title refers to the stolen hours in which the memoirs for Arenas’ book were written. But there were many such hours—from the first words of poetry that he as a young boy carved on a tree trunk, to those scrawled from a jail on paper earned from writing letters for inmates. Before Night Falls is a heart wrenching portrait—a gritty observation of a creative soul from his birth origins to those of his dreams.
Louise Keller

Julian Schnabel’s affectionate and engaging portrait of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas has the sting of massive irony: in Communist Cuba, where the Revolution was the thing, the genuine spirit of revolution and freedom as expressed by people like Reinaldo were squashed. There can be no greater indictment of the Communist system. It has cheated its followers at every turn in the essence of humanity. As for the film, it sparkles with the ethos conjured up by Javier Bardem, a complex, imperfect man who gave the world his one gift—writing words that touch us. Although the film feels quite long, it never exhausts our patience or attention. Schnabel, whose earlier biopic of the artist, Basquiat, was equally powerful and effective, makes good use of cinematic language to tell the story of man who struggled through life, driven not by greed but generosity. While it was his homosexuality that caused him much trouble in Castro’s narrow-minded village, it was his writing that really frightened the regime. Ideas can not be put behind bars or shot to death. Hence the film is not so much a film about the oppression of homosexuals, but a human story we need to know, in a socio-political setting. Other than a few cuts in sequences that linger too long, it is a great achievement and there is no doubt that Before Night Falls is a film that will last a long time.
Andrew L. Urban

Having previously chronicled the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, well-known artist Julian Schnabel turns his lens to a different kind of artist in this biopic about renowned Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Schnabel opts for an episodic style, picking significant incidents from Arenas’ life to tell a tale that’s as much about artistic and personal freedom than it is about one person’s life. This often exquisite film presents a compelling panorama of a life as remarkable for Arenas’ struggles as his writing. A cast of colourful characters drift in and out of the film, but Arenas remains the rock upon which the narrative is built. The script largely avoids over-romanticising Arenas. He’s proud, vain, selfish and often blinded by his wilfulness—not simply an object for our sympathy. As a result, Before Night Falls presents one of the most complete and well-rounded portraits of a historical figure I’ve seen for some time. The only significant problem with the film is its length. It tends to drag in the latter stages, particularly in the last quarter; before reaching a poignant finale. Javier Bardem gives Arenas great humanity in an outstanding (and Oscar-nominated) performance marked by its bravery and consistency. In not one but two significant minor roles, Johnny Depp gives fine performances. The same can be said of Sean Penn as a perceptive peasant, Michael Wincott as a fellow dissident and French actor Olivier Martinez as Arenas’ long-time friend. Before Night Falls is a finely honed film that presents not just a compelling portrait of Arenas, but a moving and captivating story of hope.
David Edwards

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CAST: Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn

DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel


SCRIPT: Cunningham O'Keefe, Lázaro Gómez Carriles, Julian Schnabel

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Xavier Pérez Grobet, Guillermo Rosas

EDITOR: Michael Berenbaum

MUSIC: Carter Burwell. Additional music by Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson


RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 6, 2001


VIDEO RELEASE: February 13, 2002

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