Reinaldo Arenas' life was marked by a series of bitter letdowns, first by his parents, then by his government and finally by his own body. Thankfully, that's a pattern not followed by "Before Night Falls," a thoughtful, bittersweet film biography of the Cuban writer that captures both his irrepressible spirit and his sometimes overwhelming melancholy.
A writer of great beauty and passion, Arenas' books were suppressed by Castro's government, which appreciated neither his homosexuality nor his anti-authoritarian politics. He was monitored, harassed, jailed and finally exiled. Impoverished and alone in New York, he spent more than a decade pouring onto the page all the emotions he'd been forced to keep in check while a prisoner - either physically or intellectually - in his native land.
Now, 11 years after his death, his life and art are given their due here, thanks to the exquisite palette of director Julian Schnabel and a compassionate, charismatic performance by Spanish actor Javier Bardem (who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor).
We first encounter Arenas as a young boy, abandoned by his father and all but abandoned by his mother, who has retreated to a world of cloistered poverty.
It's here that the seeds of both Arenas' triumph and ultimate tragedy are sown, as the introspective youngster, desperate to escape the limitations of his surroundings, begins his love affair with the transporting power of the written word.
Soon, revolution is in the air, and a teen-age Arenas becomes intoxicated with its promise of better things. He abandons his remote village and joins the rebels. When Castro takes power, the future appears limitless in its possibilities.
But limitations there would soon be, and it doesn't take long for Arenas to fall victim to them. His writing, which at first seems empowered by the revolutionary spirit infusing the country, quickly becomes a cross to bear: The totalitarian regime is interested only in tracts that further the cause.
Even more problematic is his sexuality, which Arenas can no more suppress than he can his writings. Eventually, he's jailed on a false molestation charge.
"Before Night Falls" chronicles the tug-of-war that ensues between Arenas and the Cuban government over control of his soul. Neither side wins entirely - he continues writing and even smuggles some of his work out of the country. But the price he ends up paying is enormous. He was exiled to New York, where, ill with AIDS, he took his own life in 1990.
Bardem, one of Spain's most honored actors, turns in a performance that teeters between fear and self-assuredness. Arenas, who believed so totally in the revolution and its ideals, never seems at ease with himself after being so totally betrayed.
The film also benefits from brief supporting performances by several big-name actors, including Johnny Depp as a transvestite and a prison guard and Sean Penn as a peasant who offers some worldly advice to a young Arenas.
Director Schnabel seems to lose interest in the film once it moves to New York, which is a shame; outside of a joyous first sighting of Manhattan, it appears all Arenas did in the United States was get sick and die. In fact, the majority of his 20 books were published after his arrival here, including a memoir, "Before Night Falls," in 1993.
But Schnabel makes up for that slight by bringing a painter's eye to a writer's story, resulting in a visual feast that suggests even more than it shows. His lush representations of the landscape of Arenas' youth (with Mexico filling in for Cuba) leave no doubt where the future writer found his inspiration, and why he struggled so valiantly not to betray it.
`Before Night Falls'
Starring Javier Bardem
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Released by Fine Line Features
Rated R (strong sexual content, language, brief violence)
Running time 133 minutes (In Spanish, with English subtitles)
Sun score: ***