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Through these extreme rises and falls, Arenas is always writing; his typewriter his most faithful lover and weapon (by way of smuggled manuscripts) against the dark forces that surround him. As Time magazine's Richard Corliss wrote, Arenas is "a serious actor's dream role: to be a gay Jesus in a modern Passion Play," and Javier Bardem--the first Spanish actor to receive an Oscar nomination--inhabits the role with subtle ferocity, charting this emotional odyssey with outer reserve but blazing infernos of internal passion. While Schnabel suffers from a hyperactive camera, there's poetry here--visual, dramatic, and literal--and vibrant humour to temper the deep tragedy of Arenas's life. Schnabel also uses his actor friends to good advantage: a nearly unrecognizable Sean Penn adds an ironic touch to his brief appearance as a peasant, and Johnny Depp is both funny and fearsome in dual roles as a drag queen and vicious army interrogator. --Jeff Shannon