“The best film of 2000!” “A potent, visually stunning masterpiece!” “Rapturous, intoxicating filmmaking!” These are the slobbering cries of film critics that compelled me to go see “Before Night Falls” when it finally rolled into Santa Barbara. At the end, it was visually stunning and maybe a little rapturous. Was it the best movie of 2000? Hardly.
Watching "Before Night Falls" is like drinking that orange Vitality beverage from Trader Joes: It looks cool and different; it doesn’t always taste great, but you end up finishing it because you think it’s good for you. After you gulp it down, you walk away and think about whether or not you really needed that after all.
To its own merit, painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel ("Basquiat") has created a very original and daring film. The territory it covers – the artist’s struggle under a brutal totalitarian regime – certainly has been done before. Still, with its graphic and frank discussion of homosexuality, Schnabel’s originality lies more in the film’s journey through a gay artist’s mind than as a simple thriller about escape.
Set in post-revolutionary Cuba, "Before Night Falls" is based on the memoir by exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. A homosexual from the countryside, Arenas (Javier Bardem) finds himself in Havana just after Castro rose to power. Intent on being a writer, he comes to some literary success and wins a prize. Soon, however, the Cuban police start to crackdown on homosexuals and Arenas is forced to smuggle his work outside the island for publication. Subject to constant police humiliation, Arenas is imprisoned as his arresting officer tells him, "Because I say so." Two years after a horrible prison experience, he tells an immigration officer that he likes to take it "on my knees" and is finally allowed to go to America on the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
"Before Night Falls" is most satisfying when it sticks to its mesmerizing visuals and Arenas’ touching flight from Cuba. Bardem is a truly amazing actor, and he commands the screen throughout, keeping some consistency to this ambitious and often uneven film. It is also refreshing to see an American movie that is not hopelessly romantic in its depictions of Cuba as some repressed island utopia full of smiling musicians and gleeful dancers. The glimpses into a Latin nation’s eccentric and deeply repressed gay culture also make "Before Night Falls" a worthy film to watch.
Still, Schnabel cannot discipline himself when it comes to piling on the cinematic melodrama. Poems, flashbacks and time-consuming plot turns make the film a very good test of one’s patience. The main problem with "Before Night Falls" is that it lacks a clear focus. Since much of the movie and all of its gripping parts are absorbed with Arenas’ flight from Cuba, the film loses serious steam and purpose when this is actually accomplished.
Despite some real strengths, the tedious developments in "Before Night Falls" ultimately relegate it to the beret and bong art-house crowd. Perhaps this is the kind of movie one comes to appreciate in film school, when one learns to call painstakingly slow and visual films "real art" and slick plot-driven ones "Hollywood decadence." Whatever. Moral of the story: Don’t trust the critics.