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Before Night Falls

American artist Julian Schnabel — whose formidable paintings played a major role in a resurgence of the figurative art form in the 1970s and 1980s — conquered the art world before he was 30. Schnabel has gone on to become one of the most financially successful artists of his era and a painter of considerable international fame with works displayed in such prestigious places as the Whitney Museum, London's Tate Gallery, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum. Looking to expand his artistic palette, Schnabel turned to film directing in the mid-1990s, and his singular talent has made the world of movies a richer place. His first film, Basquiat (1996), portrayed the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the homeless New York graffiti artist who experienced a brief encounter with fame before descending into drugs and madness. Schnabel's fascination with tortured artists — those out of step with their time and environment — continues with his second film, Before Night Falls, a recounting of the life of Cuban poet and novelist Rienaldo Arenas. Censored in Cuba, Arenas smuggled out his manuscripts to other countries for publication and become a critically acclaimed writer throughout the rest of the world. Working with screenwriters Cunningham O'Keefe and Lazaro Gomez Carriles and using Arenas' posthumously published memoirs and bits and pieces of his loosely autobiographical novels, Schnabel creates a masterpiece of cinematic expression that merges beauty, color, and exceptional acting. Before Night Falls begins with a surreal depiction of Arenas' years lived in extreme indigence in a rural Cuban backwater that he describes as a "childhood of absolute poverty and absolute freedom." When a teacher tells Reinaldo's father that his son has a gift for poetry, the father is incensed and driven to violence. The family later moves to the city, where the teenage Reinaldo is stirred by the excitement of Castro's revolution and runs away to join the rebels. Eventually making his way to Havana, Arenas awakens both sexually, with initially timid and then more aggressive homosexual encounters, and artistically, when his first novel is published. Schnabel vividly simulates hedonistic Havana and this idyllic time of freedom in Arenas' life — a time of sexual exploration and intellectual discovery. But Castro soon declares that there is no room in his revolution for "antisocial elements," including homosexuals and outspoken artists. As a friend tells Arenas, "People who make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. They create beauty and beauty is the enemy. Artists are counterrevolutionaries." Arenas is jailed on a trumped-up charge but continues to write, and he even manages to smuggle a manuscript out of the prison with the unique services of the transvestite Bon Bon, played with exquisite flair by Johnny Depp (Depp has an additional cameo in the film as Lt. Victor, a sadistic, sexually enigmatic military officer). Once released from prison, Arenas takes advantage of the Castro-sanctioned exodus of those deemed unfit to be Cubans. He goes to New York where he lives for the next ten years until his slow decline from AIDS causes him to commit suicide in 1990.

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Using a free-floating, sometimes phantasmagoric style, Schnabel bypasses the usual conventions of the biopic in Before Night Falls by opting to paint Arenas' life in broad strokes, almost as it if were a dream the poet himself might have had of his own life. Never delving too deep, the film refrains from examination or judgment, instead offering a visualization of Arenas through feelings, colors, and textures that allow the viewer to draw his own conclusions. Schnabel chooses his actors carefully, and the choice of Spanish actor Javier Bardem (usually known for his macho roles in films like Jamon, Jamon) is a stroke of genius. Bardem plays Arenas with great thoughtfulness as he portrays Arenas' growth from timid and uncertain writer to committed artist and revolutionary. Bardem received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work, and although he didn't win, it was the best screen performance of 2000. The supporting cast is equally impressive and includes French actor Olivier Martinez (sometimes billed as "the French Brad Pitt") as Carriles — Arenas' friend and one of the movie's co-writers — while Andrea Di Stephano portrays Pepe Malas. Depp effortlessly plays his two very diverse small parts, and watch for the almost unrecognizable Sean Penn in another cameo role. New Line's DVD release of Before Night Falls offers a letterbox widescreen transfer (1.85:1) that does justice to the saturated hues and sweeping colors of cinematographers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas, who worked to create a film with "texture you can touch." The exquisite and evocative original music by Laurie Andersen, Lou Reed, and Carter Burwell is crystal clear in Dolby Digital 5.1. Supplements include an audio commentary with Schnabel, Bardem, Carriles, Grobet, and Burwell, which presents a fascinating look into Schnabel's creative process, as well as insights about Arenas from his friend Carriles and intelligent and provocative information from these cast and crew members. Schnabel comments on his desire to tell the history of Cuba through the eyes of Arenas as "a witness and participant in this moment in Cuban history." Three very short documentary features are also included — a behind-the-scenes home movie by Schnabel's daughter Lola shows the fun and excitement the crew enjoyed during the making of the movie and catches some lighter moments; "Little Notes on Painting" is an in-studio interview with Schnabel where he shows and describes some of his paintings; and "Improper Conduct," excerpts from a 1983 interview with Arenas, offers a glimpse at the real man and shows how closely Bardem came to resemble the artist. Theatrical trailer, snap-case.
—Kerry Fall

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