A rich, successful painter who rose to fame in the Eighties and turned to filmmaking in 1996, Julian Schnabel seems haunted by the specter of other artists' failure and tragedy. How else to explain why Schnabel would follow his biographical debut, Basquiat, about another painter who enjoyed meteoric success in the New York art world before dying of a drug overdose, with his latest tale of creative suffering, Before Night Falls?
Unlike Basquiat, who expressed himself in relatively abstract imagery, Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas spoke directly enough about his own life to render Schnabel's interloping, with its weird mix of empathy and schadenfreude, irrelevant. Before committing suicide while dying of AIDS in 1990, Arenas completed the memoir from which Schnabel's film draws its name and source material, along with a five-volume series of novels, which he called the Pentagonia and described as a "secret history of Cuba." Looking at the general outline of Arenas's life, it's easy to see him as essentially a victim. His talent for writing earned him legal trouble in Cuba, where only one of his books was granted publication. When he emigrated to the United States in 1980, he went from being a threat to being just another poor, obscure writer. (According to a recent article in the Village Voice, only a dozen people turned up at his funeral.)
Despite this grim biography, Arenas's work drips with invigorating anger and playfulness. It's hard to imagine Schnabel dramatizing an orgiastic riot overthrowing Castro, as Arenas does in The Color of Summer. And, in fact, Schnabel doesn't try. Before Night Falls is more concerned with the suffering of its subject than either the life or art of the man. To this end, the film draws on the first three volumes of the Pentagonia and Arenas's memoir, Before Night Falls, to outline five stages of Arenas's life: his early childhood; adolescent rebellion (in which he left his family to join the rebels of the Cuban Revolution); early adulthood (when he began writing); his stint in jail and its aftermath in the Seventies; and his final months in New York. In its first half, the film provides an intriguing glimpse into Cuba's gay subculture. Yet once Arenas is sent to jail in 1974 for having published his books in Europe without getting permission from the official writers' union (as well as a trumped-up charge of molesting underage boys), the film becomes a one-dimensional tale of martyrdom.
This narrative emphasis colors the very look and feel of the film. The first five minutes, filled with poetic images of Arenas's childhood in the Cuban countryside, suggest an evocative tone that the picture will fail to match elsewhere. As hard as Schnabel tries, actor Javier Bardem's nonstop narration (which draws heavily on Arenas's own words) proves more eloquent than the direction. A few other scenes recapture a lovely strain of impressionist reverie: a failed balloon ride to Miami, or a montage of New York streets and waterfronts. Just as often, though, Schnabel lapses into banality, sending his cinematographers, Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas, to chase mood after mood with grainy film stocks and dingy filters.
The whole of Before Night Falls seems to follow a similar strategy of dimming the brilliant aspects of Arenas's life with needless gloom and selective editing. While Schnabel could not be expected to cover the history (and future) of modern Cuba as Arenas did over the course of five books, the director omits some ten years that Arenas spent in the U.S.--a time of steady productivity for the writer. Instead, we skip ahead to Arenas's struggle with AIDS and focus on the photogenic spectacle of the author's physical decline. To be sure, this finale is moving, but mainstream Hollywood has never found difficulty in wringing pathos out of terminal illness.
As a revolutionary author and outcast, Reinaldo Arenas deserved a radical film; what he has gotten instead is a staid and conventional biography.