"Before Night Falls" recounts the incredible life of Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, played with great sensitivity by Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Born a peasant in the 1930's, Arenas had the great misfortune of being a gay writer in a country that considered art and homosexuality to be counter-revolutionary. "Before Night Falls" is based on his memoir and relates his imprisonment in Cuba and subsequent exodus to the United States. Despite this persecution, Arenas' work flourished and was published widely, albeit mostly outside of Cuba.
Director Julian Schnabel is a well-known "neo-expressionist" painter; accordingly, he is able to bring an artist's understanding and sensibility to the story. His prior film was "Basquiat," about the 1980's graffiti artist. Although Schnabel seems to be limiting himself to portraits of artists, the two films are very disparate. Specifically, "Before Night Falls" is much grander in scope and incorporates more directorial flourishes than does "Basquiat." Despite the epic sweep of the film, Schnabel successfully tells Arenas' very personal and heart-rending story. Another major asset of the film is the cinematography and ambiance; vibrant colors and people populate the film. The viewer is transported to 1960s Cuba; you can feel the humidity and the pulse of the Mambo music.
Javier Bardem gives an astonishing performance, for which he deservedly received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor. For the role, he was required to learn Cuban-Spanish as well as English. The DVD extras include a 7 minute interview with Arenas, and it's apparent that Bardem nails the look and speech of the artist, without reverting to a simple impersonation. Although most of the actors are of Latin descent, two big American stars have small roles: Johnny Depp has hilarious joint roles as a Cuban transvestite and a Cuban general, and Sean Penn plays a peasant farmer, rather convincingly too. The only minor debit of the film is that it's a tad over-long and could have used a bit more editing. However, overall, "Before Night Falls" is a superb film that perfectly captures another time and another place. Most highly recommended.
Extras: The extras include an interesting commentary track with Schnabel and Bardem, a short behind-the-scenes documentary filmed by Schnabel's daughter, and an interview with Arenas conducted in 1984 after he immigrated to the U.S.