Suffering becomes beauty, captured on film

In 'Before Night Falls,' director Julian Schnabel sought to paint a lush portrait of an exiled Cuban writer who believed in freedom, perseverance and hope.

Film

March 04, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

The defiant man stared into the camera and said: "For the moment, my name is Reinaldo Arenas. The Justice Department has declared me stateless, so legally I don't exist. I'm living in no place, on the edge of society, in any place in the world."

Arenas, an exiled Cuban author, did this taped interview in the early 1980s, shortly after he had arrived in what he hoped would be his new homeland, the United States. It was a short clip, but full of power, passion and even wit.

And a decade and a half later, it caught the eye of American film director Julian Schnabel, who saw a documentary about Arenas one night at a friend's suggestion.

"That made me want to find out more," Schnabel recalled during a recent visit to Washington to publicize the film.

What he found was a complex and fascinating character who, before his suicide in the face of AIDS-related illnesses in 1990, waged a long and ultimately losing battle against the Cuban government through his writings and his open homosexuality.

From that first introduction to Arenas five years ago, Schnabel's curiosity has now been translated to the big screen in a searingly painful, lushly shot portrait of the author. Titled "Before Night Falls" after Arenas' autobiography, Schnabel's film has been critically acclaimed across the country. It is playing locally at the Charles Theatre.

"He turned his suffering into beauty, and I found beauty in his work that I could transform into film," Schnabel said. "And I think it's a film you can watch more than once, because you kind of look at it the way you would look at a painting. I mean, you know the story, you know the guy's gonna die, but how the hell does he get there?"

Take-charge man

The 49-year-old Schnabel knows the similarities between film and painting well. He began his career as a highly successful artist who shot to fame in the 1980s Manhattan art world with avant-garde works that included paintings encrusted with shards of shattered crockery.

A tall, husky and gregarious man, Schnabel over the years has been dubbed as charmingly self-confident, shamelessly cocky and everything in-between. But during his Washington visit, he just appeared frazzled from a day packed with nine press interviews.

However, Schnabel wasn't too frazzled to indulge the ever- present perfectionist in him -- who at that moment was having conniptions over how the darkening sky outside his hotel room window was interfering with the photo shoot by not providing enough natural light. He thought a recent snapshot of him in a national newspaper looked like "they sent a blind photographer to take my picture," and he was determined to prevent similar gaffes.

"Those are terrible paintings over there," he snapped, wagging his finger with disdain at the pastel floral prints on the walls, which were no worse than the standard hotel-room fare. "You don't want them in the picture."

It is this same take-charge fussiness that inspired Schnabel to turn his artistic vision to the big screen. An avid film fan since his childhood days in Brooklyn, Schnabel's foray into movies began in the early 1990s, when a film was being made about his friend and fellow New York painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who overdosed on heroin in 1988 at age 27. After chatting with the script writers, Schnabel said he decided that he could do a better job. In 1996, he made his directorial debut with "Basquiat."

"The fact that I can support myself and finance the movie because I'm a painter gives me the kind of freedom that other directors don't have," said Schnabel, whose paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"I don't have to take a job as a director to feed my family and make some kind of film that I don't want to make. If I'm making a film or if I'm making a painting, I'm making art."

So when he saw Arenas in all his strident and passionate glory on tape for the first time, Schnabel said he knew he had to do a movie about him.

Persecuted, jailed

Arenas, just 47 when he died, grew up an illegitimate child in rural, poverty-stricken Cuba. As an adult, he was persecuted because of his homosexuality and writings that at times portrayed Fidel Castro's government in a bad light. He was tortured, imprisoned several times and forced to sign whatever documents his captors demanded. They included "confessions" and pledges to praise the Communist government that tormented him.

In the film, Schnabel shows him locked up in solitary confinement -- a filth-smeared, rat-infested, windowless room that seems no bigger than a box. Arenas finally escaped Cuba in 1980 as part of the famed Mariel boatlift in which 250,000 "undesirables" were allowed to leave for the United States.

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