Before Night Falls
A Film by Julian Schnabel

This second effort from 70s "art star" Julian Schnabel is a skillfully made film that takes wing on a transcendent performance by Spanish actor Javier Bardem and an intelligent, carefully crafted script by Schnabel, Cunningham O'Keefe and Lázaro Gómez Carriles, who was the long-time companion of Cuban novelist and poet Reynaldo Arenas, from whose memoir the script was adapted. The film is given added power by the fact that Arenas was a writer of unusual clarity and vigor, whose own words underline some of the most compelling moments in the film.

In his directorial debut, Basquiat, a film about the brief career of Jean Michel Basquiat and the New York "art scene" of the 70s, Schnabel, whose own art was often criticized as "self-indulgent," created a film that suffered from overwrought self-consciousness. Stylistic tricks, over-designed sets and clever camera work interfered with the telling of the story. Schnabel held neither himself as writer/director, nor his cast, to a standard of restraint and discipline that might have made the film more effective. It seems he learned from that mistake.

In Before Night Falls, he still employs unusual camera angles and lens compressions, frame compositions and movements, but he does so here in service of the story rather than in spite of it. The result is a coherent film whose look and feel meld harmoniously with the narrative trajectory, to create an immediate sense of the painful, joyful, creative and challenging life that Arenas created for himself.

The key to the success of a biographical film is whether or not the film captures a palpable vision of the life it seeks to portray - and then, whether or not the individual involved is someone whose life is worth visiting. Before Night Falls finds strength on both these levels. Arenas was a vibrant, creative intellect whose life experience encompassed the Cuban revolution and its aftermath.

His life-path began in the extreme poverty of the pre-revolutionary countryside, made him a witness to the revolution itself, moved through the intellectual excitement of the democratization of Cuban cultural and educational institutions. It led him to early literary success, the awakening to his homosexuality, years of persecution by the Cuban government as a gay artist, and eventual escape to New York City in the Mariel boat-lift of 1980. He contracted AIDS and, after completing his literary work, chose to die by his own hand a decade later at the age of 47.

Clearly, there is enough drama here for a film of significant proportions. The story is so rich with emotionally meaningful detail that it could easy have shaded over into melodrama. Wisely, Schnabel chooses to understate, rather than overstate. He lets Arenas speak for himself, through the affecting and daring presence of the Bardem, and through his own words, read in "voice over."

Although this strategy can sometimes create a sense of distance, distract from the flow of a cinematic story, in this case the narration is so well written and Schnabel has placed and framed it so effectively to underline - without laboring - specific incidents or insights, that it strengthens and deepens the connection between audience and film.

The weak moments in the film are those in which Schnabel loses his focus and allows himself to include some self-consciously clever scenes. One example is the way he presents the method by which Arenas' work is smuggled out of El Morro. His representation is neither realistic enough to evoke the desperate determination the writer must have felt, nor "magically-symbolic" enough to become a fable of transcendent artistic impulse. Instead, the sequence comes off as a coarse piece of failed comedy that cheapens all the good work that surrounds it.

But luckily such moments are few. For the most part, Schnabel is closely focused on telling Arenas' powerful story simply, with humor and dignity. His sympathy for the writer's plight never becomes condescending or maudlin. For the most part he keeps the actors' performances simple and literal, restraining any impulse to "dramatize" the already sufficiently dramatic facts.

This is not a technically sophisticated film. When Schnabel makes a decision to include archival footage of the Cuban revolution with new sequences, he does so without any pretense of trying to "blend" the pieces. Rather than acting as a distraction, the obvious pasting in of the older pictures - grainy, hand-held footage that has the feel of a home movie rather than a newsreel - reminds us that we are watching a movie, but it also effectively connects the film to historical fact.

The low-budget shooting style uses a lot of static camera set-ups, which give the film a somewhat formal sense of composition, juxtaposed with a lot of handheld work. The contrast between these two techniques creates a shifting perspective, where the camera is sometimes dispassionate observer, sometimes at-risk participant. But again, the "unpolished" feel of the film is very appropriate to the "underground/outsider" life-style Arenas lived.

There are a number of fine performances in the film. Oliver Martinez, as Lázaro, acts as an effective foil for Bardem's Arenas. He is the confidant and friend through whose presence the exposition of the story unfolds, and his balance of deep sympathy for Arenas and self-preservation comes through clearly.

Andrea de Stefano plays the duplicitous Pepe with enough charm to fool both Arenas and the audience. Johnny Depp appears in a pair of roles that seek to illuminate two facets of the complex sexual confusion arising out of the confrontation between Arenas' homosexuality and Cuban society's exaggerated machismo. His physical presence as an "obscure object of desire" is more the key to both roles than any particular job of acting, and Depp effectively withdraws, leaving his luminous surface to do the work.

There is a brief cameo appearance by Sean Penn, in an effective comic turn as a Cuban peasant. Hector Babenco appears as one of Arenas' early patrons, and comfortably inhabits a role that makes a wry, ironic commentary on the insecure combination of power and powerlessness that is the lot of the "intellectual" in a regimented society.

What carries the film is Javier Bardem's performance. He manages to convey the innate innocence and simplicity of Arenas, as well as his lyrically romantic streak, with a sincerity and economy that avoids any sentimental or patronizing overtones. Arenas' humor and fortitude, his determination to survive and his dedication to his work are conveyed not in heroic, but in much more effective, purely human terms.

Bardem goes the distance with his character, showing many of his sometimes contradictory and not uniformly admirable sides while maintaining a core of psychological integrity that makes Arenas come alive. In a particularly harrowing scene where Arenas is thrown into solitary confinement in a cell that is too small to allow him to stand or stretch out, Bardem makes the claustrophobic physical discomfort explicit, despite the artifice that allows the camera to film the scene.

It's difficult to say enough about such a performance. It is so carefully toned, so thoughtfully contained that it doesn't ever look like "acting." The impression Bardem manages to create is one of intimate acquaintance with a complex, sometimes maddening, profoundly creative human being. Inhabiting the character with a relaxed grace, Bardem manages a naturalistic portrayal that complements the almost documentary feel of much of the film.

In Before Night Falls, Schnabel has managed to create a film that cuts through the artifice and mannerism of most mainstream cinema to present a meaningful and accessible portrait of a particular artist in particular circumstances. By refusing to couch that portrait in grandiose, symbolic terms, he leaves the audience free to make their own associations with the kinds of difficult struggles and decisions Arenas faced.

By telling the story in an unpretentious but emotionally resonant way that avoids judgement, he creates an open space for consideration of the issues - social, political, emotional, intellectual - that the story raises, which the audience is drawn in to inhabit.

Before Night Falls is one of the best films of the last several years. It is effective on many levels - a story so honestly and feelingly presented that it evokes a whole constellation of emotions and ideas - not unlike the compelling imagery of Arenas' own poetry.

That's my take on it. What's yours?