Born in poverty but surrounded by natural beauty in 1943 Cuba, a young boy, Reinaldo Arenas, finds himself without a father, but with a natural talent for writing. Years later, and now a teenager, Arenas (JAVIER BARDEM) has moved to the town of Holguin where he soon joins other revolutionaries in overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista.
While he then enjoys the spoils of the new government's educational programs in the early 1960s, Reinaldo also begins exploring his homosexuality through a range of lovers including Pepe Malas (ANDREA DI STEFANO). Yet, after securing a prestigious job at the National Library and writing his first novel, Reinaldo soon finds the same government he helped push into power suddenly beginning a crackdown on both artists and homosexuals.
Despite being persecuted, eventually imprisoned and interrogated by the likes of Lieutenant Victor (JOHNNY DEPP), however, the young man keeps writing, much to the chagrin of the government. As the years pass and Reinaldo finds a kindred spirit in the form of Lázaro Gómez Carriles (OLIVIER MARTINEZ), he faces various challenges such as that offered by trying to escape the island country, further persecution and harassment, and the specter of AIDS.