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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 8 August 2004
"Before Night Falls" recounts the incredible life of Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, played with great sensitivity by Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Born a peasant in the 1930's, Arenas had the great misfortune of being a gay writer in a country that considered art and homosexuality to be counter-revolutionary. "Before Night Falls" is based on his memoir and relates his imprisonment in Cuba and subsequent exodus to the United States. Despite this persecution, Arenas' work flourished and was published widely, albeit mostly outside of Cuba.
Director Julian Schnabel is a well-known "neo-expressionist" painter; accordingly, he is able to bring an artist's understanding and sensibility to the story. His prior film was "Basquiat," about the 1980's graffiti artist. Although Schnabel seems to be limiting himself to portraits of artists, the two films are very disparate. Specifically, "Before Night Falls" is much grander in scope and incorporates more directorial flourishes than does "Basquiat." Despite the epic sweep of the film, Schnabel successfully tells Arenas' very personal and heart-rending story. Another major asset of the film is the cinematography and ambiance; vibrant colors and people populate the film. The viewer is transported to 1960s Cuba; you can feel the humidity and the pulse of the Mambo music.
Javier Bardem gives an astonishing performance, for which he deservedly received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor. For the role, he was required to learn Cuban-Spanish as well as English. The DVD extras include a 7 minute interview with Arenas, and it's apparent that Bardem nails the look and speech of the artist, without reverting to a simple impersonation. Although most of the actors are of Latin descent, two big American stars have small roles: Johnny Depp has hilarious joint roles as a Cuban transvestite and a Cuban general, and Sean Penn plays a peasant farmer, rather convincingly too. The only minor debit of the film is that it's a tad over-long and could have used a bit more editing. However, overall, "Before Night Falls" is a superb film that perfectly captures another time and another place. Most highly recommended.
Extras: The extras include an interesting commentary track with Schnabel and Bardem, a short behind-the-scenes documentary filmed by Schnabel's daughter, and an interview with Arenas conducted in 1984 after he immigrated to the U.S.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 16 January 2008
A beautiful film in every terms: from outstanding cinematography to dazzling ambiance, from stirring performances to gripping theme. Having the bittersweet taste of an independent film, it defies categorization, grimly realistic and highly improvisational. What I particularly found captivating is its almost-documentary nature and realness, a razor-sharp realness disguised under character persona.

The film traces the chaotic life of Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas, from his unwanted birth in absolute poverty in Oriente to his death in NYC at the age of 47. Multi-layered and absorbing, the film follows a narrative-based episodic course and never gets bogged down in long and boring psychological analyses and free from any kind of unnecessary details. What's more, mercifully no moron-oriented Hollywood sentimentality is dragged in to undermine its effectiveness.

From the very beginning, ex neo-expressionist painter Julian Schnabel, famous for huge canvasses, imbues the film with vibrant colors and stylish "strokes". Everything begins with a highly artsy-craftsy scene which heralds the coming of the striking leitmotif: a close-up of a little boy, totally naked, playing with mud in a squalid hole surrounded by an incredible beauty. He's naked because he possesses no clothes; he's playing with mud because he owns no toys. From now on, his childhood in absolute poverty, his youthful idealism to join to rebels against Batista regime, the discovery of his writing talents as well as his homosexuality, his sufferings during repression and persecution period just after Cuban Revolution, his arrest and brutal imprisonement at El Morro, his escape to the U.S. during the 1980 Mariel Boatlifts and his last crash as the life is drained out of him in NYC, all told in a sense giving the taste of beauty and aesthetics of a poetry.

My only complaint is that although the main language of the film is English, some scenes are shot in English, some Cuban-Spanish. For a film with such helluva visual and emotional moments in exotic backdrops of Cuba, the spoken English moments are pointless and undercut the film's effectiveness. It would be better if the film was served entirely in Spanish.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 24 September 2005
Having just watched this for the second time in a month, after having first taped it to help with my spanish studies (and because of the added bonus of Johnny Depp being in it!), it is one of my favourite films. I hadn't heard of Reinaldo Arenas previously, but the absolutely perfect performance that Javier Bardem gives, and the beautiful directing of this film, the production, the music, the colourfulness, Johnny Depp and Sean Penn's cameos, the clips of a previously banned film as the credits roll ... all of it tells the most touching story, contrasting the abuse of human rights with a very touching humanity.
The times when the pace of the film slows I found to be most effective in making you care even more, and feel much closer to, Reinaldo, almost as if the film had gone into real time and you suddenly realised you were almost in the room with the characters, and at their most vulnerable time. The slowing of the pace happens occasionally, but most of all as Reinaldo's health is deteriorating; as with the whole of the film, this is impeccably handled. This film's had me in tears both times, near the end, and I don't easily cry at anything! Amazing movie, powerful and well worth seeing again and again. One of the most human films I can recall seeing.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 25 August 2005
I haven't seen this for a while but I think its quite stunning. Its poignant, moving, interesting and humourous, tragic and shocking. The latter refers simply to the fact that Reinaldo Arenas' life ended in this suicide, when the film creates (in its portrayal of 1950's Cuba) a world almost before innocence lost! Obviously that might not make sense completely - But I mean it is portrayed as a vibrant, bright, free and easy world.
This contrasts strongly with the representation of Castro-era Communism.
I think the film, like the book, is just utterly moving and quite beautifully filmed. As well, it makes some important observations about the period in history and freedom from censorship, be it the banning of free media/authorship or the censorship of unwanted deviants from society.
If you haven't seen it, do so. You'll be proud to have it and see it again.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 7 April 2004
Before Night Falls is a brilliant portrayal into to the life of cuban writer Renaldo Arenas. The movie is so powerful that after watching it it plays on your mind.
Javier Bardem is absolutely awesome in his role as Renaldo, words cannot describe his performance in the movie.
I think that this is probably one of my favourite films.
It was nice to see Sean Penn and Johnny Depp was terrific as a drag queen. Johnny makes a georgeous lady when all dressed up.
Overall the movie is fantastic and is it really makes you think about how cruel life can be.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 20 March 2007
Julian Schnabel, a painter, has directed one of the most extraordinary films of recent times. I saw it in the theater on its initial release, and reccently watched it on DVD again, and my admiration for it has grown. The first time I saw it, it had been a few years since I had read Arenas' memoirs, on which it is based. From the hedonistic freedom that swept Cuba as Castro took charge , followed too soon after by the most horrific repression that Arenas had to suffer for being a writer and being gay, the book piled detail on detail, on such an extraordinary scale it was almost unbelievable! Magic realism couldn't hold a candle to Arenas own life! Prodigious sex and prolific writing and relentless persecution all one after another! The final irony ofcourse being that Arenas escapes Cuba,to arrive in America, and soon succumb to the ravages of AIDS.

So much of the book survives in the film, that was what struck me when I saw it. It carried the book's explicitness as much as one could, and Javier Bardem's performance is one of the greatest screen performances of recent times. Utterly daring! What better tribute to Arenas, who thanks to his remarkable book, and Schnabel's and Bardem's work here, has achieved the revenge on his tormentors, that he so wished!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 5 December 2008
What can I say...
I saw this movie some years ago at a GLBT film festival in Copenhagen and it left images imprinted on my mind. I found it again here and bought it.
It is funny, sensual and heartbreaking...
Javier Bardem is a handsome man, he acts very convincingly as the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas.
Johnny Depp has a small, very 'Depp' part as a secret police sergeant.
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on 4 March 2013
i chose this as i like johnny depp, and from the little i knew of this film, was curious to see johnny looking lovely "in drag" it was well worth the cost to see him, for all but his brief, about 15 minutes of screen time, however, the film is very good, without going into it to spoil the storyline, which is a true account of 1950,s supressed cultural homosexuality, in cuba, and the story of one man,s struggle to overcome the repression and become a writer, i would say it is a good film to possibly assist, say, people in education, who are doing studies of this subject and era.
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on 11 May 2011
This movie severely changed my image of Castro, ever since I was a kid I thought he only did good things for the Cuban people, now I know this point of view was entirely wrong. Javier Bardem gives a splendid performance!!! And I hardly recognized Johnny Depp in his "female" disguise.
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on 13 January 2013
Beautiful story well told, and all the sadder because it comes from reality. Bardems central performance is brilliant and even Johnny Depp does himself credit, in what could have been novelty roles for him.
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