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Review: Carnality and revenge in Castro's Cuba

By 1970 the Cuban communist revolution was 11 years old. But far from taking a breather, a paranoid dictatorship was continuing its fight against the island's freethinkers, homosexuals and anyone, according to writer Reinaldo Arenas of Before Night Falls, "who wears his pants too tight". Censored, imprisoned, his life threatened, Arenas refuses to put down his pen. Why? a friend asks. "Revenge."
Arenas's story - a true story - is breathtakingly poignant, yet what makes Before Night Falls one of the year's best films is Director Julian Schnabel's emphasis on the man as a whole. The film is a sweeping, passionate exploration of Arenas's entire life, not just his misfortune.


Javier Bardem (left) plays Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, telling the true story of a writer "who wears his pants too tight".
photo: Courtesy Continental Films

Before Night Falls

Running time: 133 minutes
Starring: Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Playing at: Charlie's Centrum, Kino Tatra
Rating:9 out of 10

By 1970 the Cuban communist revolution was 11 years old. But far from taking a breather, a paranoid dictatorship was continuing its fight against the island's freethinkers, homosexuals and anyone, according to writer Reinaldo Arenas of Before Night Falls, "who wears his pants too tight". Censored, imprisoned, his life threatened, Arenas refuses to put down his pen. Why? a friend asks. "Revenge."

Arenas's story - a true story - is breathtakingly poignant, yet what makes Before Night Falls one of the year's best films is Director Julian Schnabel's emphasis on the man as a whole. The film is a sweeping, passionate exploration of Arenas's entire life, not just his misfortune.

Born in a poor village, Arenas's literary career seems doomed from the start. When his grandfather discovers poetry carved into a tree on family property, he chops it down. As a young man in post-revolutionary Havana, he lands a job at a library and writes in his spare time, but as his work gains attention and his homosexual life becomes increasingly promiscuous (Arenas claimed to have slept with 5,000 men), a clash with the authorities seems inevitable.

In one powerful scene, a publisher offers to edit Arenas's first book, which he calls too good not to be great, but follows that praise with a grim lecture on the future of Cuban art. The regime will destroy 400 years of culture, he predicts, because beauty is the one thing it cannot control. The omnipresence of Castro's regime is made vivid by genuine film clips of communist billboards, seas of Cuban flags, and impassioned Castro speeches.

Yet for many years Arenas lives happily, enjoying a wildly uninhibited gay lifestyle in Havana's swinging 1960's, a kind of rebellion against the regime, as Arenas describes it in one of the character's many voice-overs. Shot in Mexico, the film depicts a Cuba of green countryside, ubiquitous coastline and raging all-night parties. The decision to keep all signs and newspapers and some conversations in Spanish adds to the authentic atmosphere.

Not until Arenas is taken in 1974 to a prison, where he is thrown into solitary confinement and left to stew in his own faeces, does his suffering take centre stage. Yet even here life is not without pleasant diversions. He is paid by other prisoners to write letters, and manages to smuggle out a book. Released from prison, he falls in with a crowd of black-marketeers planning on flying to Florida in a hot-air balloon. The plan fails, but he seems to have found friends he can trust.

Javier Bardem plays Arenas with soft-spoken passion as he leads the audience through the author's joys and sorrows. In one memorable scene, Areanas - part of a wave of criminals, homosexuals and dissidents released by Castro to the US in 1980 - rides through a snowy Manhattan in a convertible. The expression of joy on Bardem's face is exactly what one might expect from a communist dissident suddenly given a reprieve from Castro's Cuba.

Johnny Depp plays two characters in Before Night Falls' only misstep. His Cuban accent is unconvincing, and his roles as a general and a transvestite are too close together in the film's sequence for viewers to accept. The effect is a mixture of the surreal and the tongue-in-cheek, something more fitting a film like Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.

Before Night Falls concludes in New York, where Arenas wrote and lived humbly until 1990, when he died at age 47 of AIDS. By then he had published eight novels - but only one in his native Cuba.

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