In its purest essence, the art
of cinema still finds its way into the psychic of film lovers
through exposure to the individual. Before Night Falls
has been creating a sensation in Europe since its world premiere
at the Venice Film Festival and word spread wild fire among Hollywood
insiders long before the film's upcoming release in the U.S.
(December 22, 2000 limited; January 12, 2001 wide). Fresh from
National Board of Review 2000 Film Awards presented to actor
Javier Bardem for his portrayal of Reinaldo Arenas and the films
placement in the Board's Top 10 list of the years best films,
Before Night Falls promises to hit streets across America
Director, Julian Schnabel, turned
to the canvas of film to paint a compelling portrait of life
behind the dark curtain of Castro's Cuba. With a watchful eye,
he transformed a poet's words into cinema so real you can literally
experience the painful chill of Reinaldo Arenas' repression and
persecution. Why is this story so important in our pursuit of
self-indulgence and affluence? Perhaps the answer lies in the
concept that freedom cannot be truly experienced without some
exposure to the lack of it.
Reinaldo Arenas story begins
with his birth in 1943, a particularly prolific year for producing
future poets of revolution (George Harrison, Jim Morrison, Mick
Jagger, Janis Joplin
). Abandoned by his father, Reinaldo's
mother took her young son to live with her parents on a farm
in the Oriente province of Cuba. Influenced by the contrast of
unmitigated poverty played out in a lush natural setting, Reinaldo
was allowed to follow every impulse, experiencing immeasurable
In 1958, his family moved to
the town of Holguin where Reinaldo joined Castro's insurgency
to overthrow the dictator Batista. With the triumph of the Revolution,
he immersed himself in the new government's ambitious program
to educate the youth of Cuba. By 1962, Reinaldo (Javier Bardem)
was attending the University of Havana and surrounded by a city
filled with possibilities. Swept into the influence of the sexual
revolution of the time, he indulged in a wide range of lovers
including Pepe Malas (Andrea Di Stefano), who introduced him
to Havana's thriving homosexual subculture.
Reinaldo pursued the exploration
of his identity as a writer and homosexual with enthusiasm and
joy. He entered a storytelling contest and secured work at the
prestigious National Library. He became friends with Cuba's most
celebrated writers and published his first novel titled Singing
from the Well at the age of twenty. It was awarded First Mention
in the country's Cirilo Villaverde National Competition.
In the late 1960's the Cuban
government began a persecution of artists and homosexuals. Writers
were forced to renounce their work and homosexuals were sent
to labor camps. Defiant, Reinaldo continued to write and smuggled
his next novel, Halluncinations, to France for publication. For
the next few years he was subject to relentless persecution as
authorities searched his rooms, confiscated his work and threatened
In 1973, Reinaldo was arrested.
Falsely accused of sexual molestation, he escaped from jail and
attempted to flee the island afloat on an inner tube. He failed
and was again arrested and sent to the notorious El Morro prison
where he served two years. He survived by composing letters to
the inmates' wives and lovers, accumulating pencil and paper
for his writing. He was discovered in an attempt to smuggle his
work out of the prison ,brutally punished and forced to renounce
Upon his release from El Morro,
Reinaldo took residence at a hotel where he met Lázaro
Gómez Carriles (Olivier
Martinez), who became a life long friend. In 1980, Castro
allowed homosexuals, mental patients and criminals to leave Cuba.
Reinaldo left Cuba in exile, settling in New York. One of the
early victims of AIDS, he waged a truly furious race against
dead to complete his works in process. By the time of his death
in 1990, Reinaldo had written over 20 books (including 10 novels)
and numerous short stories. His work has been noted as the most
passionate and angry published against the totalitarian state.
Arenas Memoir, Before Night Falls was published in English
in 1993 and listed by The New York Times Book Review as one of
the year's best books.
Ironically, it is quite possible
the film will become the vehicle that introduces Reinaldo's struggle
to the masses. Life becomes Art
Painter and filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, spoke passionately about
his inspiration for Before Night Falls, "You can't
stop art. You can try to stop it, but like grass it will come
up through the cracks even after cement is laid on top of it."
He was referring to his vision of filmmaking and Arenas' obsession
to write in defiance of political persecution. While repression
continues to exist in many parts of our world, Julian hopes to
bring to light the sensitivity and dreams of people who live
their whole lives in the uncertainty of life in a totalitarian
An eclectic cast brings to vivid
reality its characters. Johnny Depp's scene stealing entrance
as Bon Bon is worth the price of admission alone, but it is his
dual role as Lieutenant Victor that roots itself back in Arenas'
work. "In Reinaldo's writing, one character can be two,
three different personages; somebody can be a man and a woman
at the same time," Schnabel explains. "I also like
to think that Reinaldo would imagine that Lieutenant Victor and
Bon Bon could be the same person - that Cuban State Security
would go to such extravagant lengths to undermine the stability
of the prisoners. The fact that Bon Bon/Lieutenant Victor could
be Reinaldo's vision of beauty and his destruction is a constant
in Reinaldo's body of work - he turned everything into literature."
Michael Wincott's portrayal of
Heberto Zorillo Ochoa is as intense as the fate his character
suffers by being forced to denounce his work in public and to
denounce his family and friends. "It is a pivotal role",
Schnabel continues, "You've seen this man in the background,
he's been part of the city's cultural life and then all of a
sudden, he's singled out."
But it is the passion and strength
of two young European actors that sets Before Night Falls
apart from most films.
French actor, Olivier Martinez's
portrayal of Reinaldo's life long friend Lázaro reflects
his real life as a child of refugees. "He is someone who
is always on the edge in the same way that Lázaro is."
Julian noted. Olivier brings a poignant sensitivity to his character's
role as caretaker through the last years of Reinaldo's life.
Javier Bardem's American breakout
performance as Reinaldo evokes a compelling feeling of compassion
for the story. His preparation for the role entailed a great
deal of work. He studied English, lost weight and searched for
his character through Reinaldo's great body of work, "That's
why he survived. Reinaldo had to write, or he would have died.
He used his writing, his humor, his pain and his homosexuality
as weapons against the regime." Javier explained. Unsure
about his ability to capture Reinaldo's character, Javier drew
confidence from a photo of Arenas. "I knew when I saw the
strength in his face, that I could do it." His main concern:
"Trying to be respectful of the people who knew him."
With talk of awards, Javier is adamant in his response. "I
want to enjoy this moment of doing a movie that I like and that
a lot of people like
that is enough for me."