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"BEFORE NIGHT FALLS"
(2000) (Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: After participating in the socialist revolution in Cuba, a gay writer and poet finds his life turned upside down when Castro's regime cracks down on both artists and homosexuals.
PLOT:
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.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Throughout history, there have been countless instances of all forms of government or leadership being overthrown or overturned. From the first caveman who knocked their tribal leader, Og, over the head with a club to the American Revolution and the Islamic revolution in Iran, people have become fed up with those who rule and thus replace them - usually in less than peaceful ways - with new leaders and/or ideologies.

Not surprisingly, most of those who support such revolutions - usually young, disfranchised men - forget the old axiom of being careful what one wishes for and that of the grass always being greener on the other side of the governmental fence. While such revolutions are often successful and the people subsequently better off, often times they're not, such as has been the case in Iran and Cuba.

The latter, of course, involved the flushing out of the Batista dictatorship in favor of Castro and his socialist state in the late 1950s. While many who supported and/or participated in the action initially believed they did the right thing (especially since Batista was corrupt), history has obviously proved that the fix wasn't any better than the initial problem. Once a thriving country known for its tourism industry, Cuba is currently the equivalent of a crumbling third world country, thanks in part to the collapse of the former Soviet Union that once supplied/backed them.

The story of one of those young revolutionaries now comes to the silver screen in "Before Night Falls," a look at the life and times of the late Cuban poet and author Reinaldo Arenas. An engrossing but ultimately episodic picture, the film looks great and benefits from a terrific performance by lead actor Javier Bardem ("Live Flesh," "Boca a Boca") who creates a compelling figure despite the film's disjointed nature.

This isn't the first - and most likely isn't the last - time that a biopic will suffer from this cinematic malady as it's quite difficult to cram a person's entire life into two or so hours of screen time. As is the case with many such pictures, this one contains many well-mounted and executed individual moments that unfortunately don't seamlessly fit together into one congruous whole.

While they move along from one to the next in a sequential fashion and are mostly easy to comprehend within their own individualized context - even if some aren't fully explained and/or explored - it would have been nice had they flowed and fit together in a smoother fashion (as is the case in the Jackson Pollock biopic, "Pollock").

It also doesn't help matters that the story - also written by Cunningham O'Keefe and Lázaro Gómez Carriles (both making their debuts) -- lacks any strongly defined, recurring characters to help in tying those scenes together and/or providing some familiar faces so that the protagonist doesn't feel like a loner moving from one scene to the next.

Like many artist turned filmmakers, however, writer/director Julian Schnabel (who previously helmed a feature on fellow painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1996 film, "Basquiat") knows how to use the screen as his canvas. Most every scene in the film - shot by cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet ("Santitos," "La Mujer de Benjamin") -- has that luscious artistic look and feel that, when coupled with Bardem's strong central performance, should make the film worthwhile for those who travel in the art house circuit.

It is that actor's portrayal of Arenas, though, that serves as the film's audience-pleasing attraction. While the character's sexual orientation and such related scenes might mean that some viewers won't be able to get past that point, the actor delivers an award-worthy performance in embodying the man and making him a true, sympathetic character. Arenas' life was no doubt an epic struggle and Bardem perfectly portrays that and more in the role.

In essence and despite the presence of other performers and their characters, though, it's a one-man show. Beyond Andrea Di Stefano ("Vendetta," "The Prince of Homburg") who occasionally appears as an acquaintance/lover of the author, other characters come and go before one has a chance to figure them out, let alone get used to them.

Among those portraying such characters are Sean Penn ("Sweet and Lowdown, "The Thin Red Line") as a wagon driver and Johnny Depp ("Sleepy Hollow," "Donnie Brasco") in the dual role of a police/military official and a flamboyant transvestite. In the end, however, they don't amount to much more than some distracting, extended cameo bits, particularly since some of those scenes - especially the one with Penn in lots of make-up - come off like favors or ego-stoking moments.

Overall, the film is okay, but flawed and obviously won't make its way out of the art house circuit for mainstream moviegoers to see. While it may garner an Oscar nomination for Bardem, the film will likely otherwise quickly fall into obscurity just like the life of the real-life author on whom it's based. "Before Night Falls" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 20, 2000 / Posted February 2, 2001


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