There's a lyrical quality to this film that makes the brutality of the oppression it depicts seem almost tangible, and `Before Night Falls, ` directed by Julian Schnabel, is photographed in a way that gives much of it something of a documentary feel (and, indeed, some archival footage is included), which defines the drama and adds to the overall impact of the film. And quite a story it is. The true story of writer Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem), who was born in Cuba in 1943, it touches on his childhood, but concentrates on the '60s and '70s, during which time Arenas was considered a counter-revolutionary by the Cuban government because of his writing, as well as his homosexuality.
Schnabel pulls no punches as he presents an incisive picture of the suffering inflicted upon Arenas (and others) through the wanton mistreatment and discrimination of Castro's regime. Extremely well crafted and delivered, it's a film that makes a powerful statement about many of the things so many take for granted. Like freedom of speech and assembly. For as the film points out, in post-revolution Cuba, a gathering of more than three becomes a criminal offense; a group of people getting together for a poetry reading become criminals of the State, and the punishment for expressing one's own thoughts can be, at the very least, torture and imprisonment.
This is the environment in which Arenas grew and matured, as a person, a poet, a writer; still, he was irrepressible when it came to his work, and managed to create and have some of it published, but only by smuggling it out of Cuba (in one instance to France, where his book was named Best Foreign Novel of the year). It's a ruthless, uncompromising world Schnabel lays bare with his camera, and it's that realistic recreation of that very real time and place that is one of the strengths of this film. But what really drives it and makes it so compelling, is Bardem's incredible portrayal of Arenas.
To say that Bardem's performance was worthy of an Oscar would be an understatement; along with Ed Harris (in `Pollock'), it was quite simply one of the two best of the year (2000). In order to bring Arenas to life, it was necessary for Bardem to capture all of the myriad complexities of the man and the artist, which he did-- and to perfection. It's a challenging role, and Bardem more than lives up to it, with a detailed performance through which he expresses the physical, as well as the emotional aspects of the character: His mannerisms, his walk, the body language that says so much about who he is; how he copes with living in a seemingly hopeless situation. By the end of the movie, because of Bardem, you know who Reinaldo Arenas was, and you're not likely to forget him.
The most poignant scenes in the film are those in which Arenas' words are being recited as the camera creates a visual context for them, looking out through the window of a moving car or bus at the streets, towns, buildings and people, as Arenas describes them. These scenes fill the senses and are virtually transporting; and it is in them that the true poetic nature of Arenas is made manifest. It's beautiful imagery, and the contrast between the beauty of the words and the ugliness of the reality against which it is set is powerful. All of which is beautifully conceived and executed by Schnabel; an excellent piece of filmmaking.
In a dual supporting performance, Johnny Depp is effective as Bon Bon, a `queen' Arenas meets during his incarceration, and also as Lieutenant Victor, who oversees the prison. Each character is unique, and it's quite a showcase for Depp's versatility.
Rounding out the supporting cast are Olivier Martinez (Lazaro), Andrea Di Stefano (Pepe), Sean Penn (Cuco), Michael Wincott (Herberto), Pedro Armendariz Jr. (Reinaldo's Grandfather) and Vito Maria Schnabel (Teenage Reinaldo). A film that is not necessarily entertaining, and at times unpleasant to watch because of it's stark realism, `Before Night Falls' is, nevertheless, thought-provoking, riveting drama that is thoroughly engrossing. And it proves that beauty can indeed be found in the least likely of places. But it also makes you realize that it is up to each individual to care enough to seek it out, and to hopefully have the wisdom to realize it once it is found. And that's the real beauty of a film like this; it affords you the opportunity to do just that. I rate this one 10/10.