Reinaldo Arenas suffers increasing state persecution as he rises to become one of Cuba’s greatest writers. [Dir: Julian Schnabel / Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Johnny Depp / 133min/ Biography, Drama/ Anti-Socialism, Freedom of Speech, Government as Bigot]
“People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. We create beauty and beauty is the enemy. Artists are escapists. Artists are [condemned as] ‘counter-revolutionary’ because there is a man that cannot govern the terrain called beauty, so he wants to eliminate it.” The man referred to in this bit of dialogue, who wants to eliminate what he cannot control, is dictator Fidel Castro; the artist to be eliminated, and the subject of this film, is poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas.
Based on Arenas’s best-selling memoirs, Before Night Falls tells the story of his colorful youth in pre-Castro Cuba, his early support for the Cuban revolution and eventual disillusionment with it, his rising career as a writer, his persecution both as a writer and as a gay man, his escape to the U.S., and ultimately his tragic death.
Arena’s experience in Cuba, as portrayed in this film, is typically Orwellian. Cuba’s state (monopoly) literary institutions deliberately underrated Arenas’s achievements because he refused to tow the party line. Cuban authorities intimidated Arenas and his fellow writers with sudden arrests and show trials of suspected literary “counter-revolutionaries.” At the same time, Castro ordered the general round up of gay men; and one by one, many of Arenas’s friends were arrested and sent to concentration camps. (After years of denying persecution of gays, Castro recently conceded the point.)
Arenas nonetheless persevered, writing in secret and carefully and ingeniously hiding his manuscripts until they could be smuggled out of the country. Publication abroad and worldwide acclaim did not win him fame at home, however. Instead, he was imprisoned on a trumped up charge, and although one of Cuba’s most talented writers, for years he remained little known in his own country, so complete was Castro’s control of the media.
While this is a story of state oppression, it’s also a story of heroism in the face of oppression, and it’s told, often in Arenas’s own (narrated) words, with that kind of laughter in the face of pain that belongs exclusively to the long-suffering. The telling has wit, not only in words, but incorporated into events. The film is likewise notable for artful cinematography and generally superior acting, including both an Academy Award–nominated performance by Javier Bardem as Arenas, and characteristically creative performances by an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp in two polar opposite cameo roles: as a macho Cuban prison officer, and as “Bon Bon,” a transvestite.
The story is biographical, but finer than conventional biography because it incorporates the very dreamlike poetical sense of Reinaldo Arenas that made him worthy of being its subject. Although just over two hours, it feels longer, like a leisurely story-telling by a Cuban wit. No doubt Reinaldo Arenas would be pleased.
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