Before Night Falls Movie Review

Is there a rule that all biopics must begin at birth and end at death? Death I can understand, but the actions of a three-month old just don't seem of much relevance to any story, regardless of how important the subject is.

Alas, the subject of Before Night Falls is likely not a name you'll be familiar with anyway, but there he is, a speechless little boy playing in a pit dug in the ground. As it turns out, Reinaldo Arenas was an acclaimed Cuban author, and I have to take the press notes' word on that, as I've never heard of the guy. His life certainly appears to have been filled with adventure and tragedy, as many Cuban lives undoubtedly have been. Outcast as a youth for his interest in writing and his predilection for the male gender, Arenas was persecuted, imprisoned, exiled, and infected (apparently with AIDS, though it's never really specified). And all the while he just wants to write his poetry and novels. Perhaps the best scene in the film has Arenas floating in escape from one round in prison, his manuscript tied to his waist in a plastic bag.

Strangely, it comes as quite a surprise that few of these misadventures are engaging to watch. By the end of the film (which is more than two hours in length), I neither feel like I know Arenas, nor do I know much of his work, save for a few good, but straightforward, poems about the rigors of growing up Cuban. Shrug.

Relying on a style that he must have hoped would be mistaken for avant-garde, director Julian Schnabel wanders throughout Arenas's life with little care for structure and sense. Arenas will be sweating his way through some torturous scene, then interpretive dance will fill the next. We are invited to let the film wash over us, but its disjointed amateurism prevents that from happening with much success. In his second film, Schnabel attempts to improve on his truly lame Basquiat, another down-and-out artist tragedy, and at least Before Night Falls is better than that. But that isn't saying a whole lot.

As Arenas, actor Javier Bardem bears a striking resemblance to the man, but his demeanor feels all wrong. Mush-mouthed and mopey, he comes across as a Cuban David Schwimmer, which I can't really imagine was Schnabel's intent. With an intrusive voice-over that runs the entire length of the film, only a couple of nutty cameos from Sean Penn and Johnny Depp serve to lighten the proceedings very much.

So, what better story for the holidays than a little something about years of Communist oppression followed by a tragic, debilitating death in exile? Ah, sounds like Christmas.

Night, rain fall.


Before Night Falls Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, 2000


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