Before Night Falls Review

Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed the theatrical release of Before Night Falls.

A flawed yet engrossing look at tortured and persucuted Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, featuring an Oscar nominated performance from Javier Bardem.

Before Night Falls will stick in most people’s minds due to the surprise Oscar nomination this year for Javier Bardem in the Best Actor category. Bardem subsequently lost to the grunting joke that was Russell Crowe for the abominable Gladiator, but his performance is one of the best things on display in Before Night Falls.

A biography of (in)famous Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, the film deals with the almost consistent struggle against persecution throughout Arenas’ life of doing what always came naturally to him – writing poetry and living a homosexual lifestyle. Born amongst terrible poverty, Arenas’ teacher informs his grandfather that the boy is very gifted with words. The grandfather angrily beats the boy and moves the family away, and this symbolises the entirety of Arenas’ life. As a young adult, Arenas attended the University of Havana after a brief stint as a revolutionary. He discovered that an underground sexual revolution was occurring alongside the official surface Revolution, and he acquired many male lovers for himself. Before Night Falls however, is an exploration of Cuba’s brutal treatment of Arenas, and deals mostly with his struggles and his eventual exile and death of AIDS in 1990.

Before Night Falls is certainly a film that packs a punch, and some scenes are very shocking indeed. The main problem is the script. Here is a man who needed a three-hour movie devoted to him and instead gained a two-hour one. So much feels cut from the film that most of the time it is very hard to follow what is going on, and the film jumps from location and time at will, without considering the viewer. It also is safe to assume that for the most part audiences will know little if anything about the subject and the film takes liberties with the storytelling and thus takes certain facts for granted. Julian Schnabel’s direction depicts Arenas as a martyr deserving the thrusting of pity, and it has to be argued that there are other more deserving cases in cinema. Schnabel’s Basquiat hit home more convincingly because it was more focused, and Before Night Falls tries to tell too much in too short space a time.

Javier Bardem is very convincing as Reinaldo Arenas, yet even his dialogue is prone to mumbling at times, and his thick Spanish/Cuban accent sometimes dominates his English pronunciations to a detrimental affect. As Arenas’ struggle increases towards the later acts of the film, Bardem becomes more compelling, and towards the end of the film you associate Reinaldo Arenas solely with his performance. There is a very weird cameo from Johnny Depp in the middle act, in which Depp plays two very different yet strange roles that only last for one scene each. Seeing that Depp is obviously very noticeable as himself in both roles, it is odd that he should play two different roles that are so close to each other chronologically in the film. Michael Wincott and Sean Penn also have small blink-and-you-miss-them cameos.

Before Night Falls is an interesting film that ultimately fails to reach the targets it aims for. It has been critically praised, and the film is certainly courageous for trying to present a different type of tortured genius on the screen. However, the plot requires severe work, and maybe DVD is a better medium for the film than the big screen and low tolerance of the cinema.

Raphael Pour-Hashemi

Updated: Oct 09, 2001

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