Frequently described as “episodic,” Julian Schnabel’s biographical film on Cuban poet Reinaldo Arena (Javier Bardem) is certainly that — not in the least because Schnabel and his co-writers, Cunningham O’Keefe and Lazaro Gomez Carriles, have insisted on trying to encompass all of Arena’s life into the body of the film. As a result, we are treated to an audacious work that tries — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to translate the poetry of its subject into the poetic and dream-state imagery of its painterly director. This is all well and good, but the problem is that it doesn’t always make for compelling storytelling. Indeed, sometimes the storytelling is so lost in the shuffle that the viewer isn’t entirely aware of what’s going on. When this happens, the frequently brilliant film crosses the line to become frustrating in the extreme. This situation isn’t helped in the least by the fact that large chunks of the dialogue are often difficult to understand, owing less to the heavily accented cast than to the limitations of location recording. These reservations to one side, the very fact that a deliberately rough-edged, brazenly experimental work like Before Night Falls could be made in the current world of over-produced, ultra-slick, test-marketed, pabulum-drenched movies is in itself cause for some celebration. Any filmmaker capable of selling a movie that effortlessly slips in and out of fantasy such as this one deserves more than a passing nod. When Schnabel scores — as in the seamless interpolation of fantasy or the brilliant use of the Mahler “5th Symphony” when Castro’s Cuba turns on its intellectuals and “misfits” — he scores big. Even when he misses, he does so with no little style — at least up until the film’s final sequences, where he settles in for a dreary pseudo cinema verite approach that isn’t effectively enlivened by elements of fantasy and memory from the film’s dying subject’s life. In many ways, Before Night Falls is a textbook biopic — charting the course of its subject’s origins (no sooner does Reinaldo’s grandfather learn that his grandson has a gift for poetry than the old man does his best to kill any such notion) to his successes to his trials and, finally, to his death. Schnabel’s premise seems to be that anything Reinaldo does that is specific to him — from writing to being homosexual — is going to bring some kind of wrath down on him. In essence, it’s the artist as “angry young man,” and, indeed, anger seems to be what Reinaldo is mostly about — even to the point of answering the question, “Why do you write?” with the one word response, “Revenge.” Granted, the life of Reinaldo Arena justifies much of this anger, but it’s a double-edged sword that Schnabel refuses to examine, since it begs the question as to whether Reinaldo writes in spite of what it will cause to happen to him, or because of what will happen to him if he does. As a result, it’s difficult to feel that we’re getting a full picture of the poet, but what we do get is an essentially powerful one — not in the least due to the dynamic portrayal of Reinaldo by Javier Bardem. Bardem — an actor who boasts the kind of smoldering intensity associated with the young Oliver Reed (whom he even resembles) — seems to wholly become the demon-driven Reinaldo in a frequently ferocious performance. No one else in the cast comes near his level of performance, and that’s saying a good deal, since most of the acting — even the essentially cameo work by Johnny Depp (in a dual role as the transvestite Bon Bon and the lecherous prison commandant, Lt. Victor), Sean Penn and writer Jerzy Skolimowski — is top drawer. In the end, Schnabel’s film works more than it doesn’t. The mood and atmosphere seem palpably real, as does the intensity of the creative spirit embodied in Reinaldo. The film has the feel of an artifact of the “Beat Generation,” which is probably more apt than it might seem, since it is more to that generation of writers than any other to which Reinaldo Arena seems to belong. It is not the unreservedly great film it should have been, but neither is it all that far from it.
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