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Movie Review

Before Night Falls

MPAA Rating: R-Rating (MPAA) for strong sexual content, some language and brief violence.

Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill

Very Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Biography Drama
2 hr. 13 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
February 23, 2001
Copyright, Fine Line Features click photos to ENLARGE Copyright, Fine Line Features Copyright, Fine Line Features Copyright, Fine Line Features Copyright, Fine Line Features
Relevant Issues
Javier Bardern and Johnny Depp in “Before Night Falls”

POVERTY—What does the Bible say about the poor? Answer

poor in the Bible


What about gays needs to change? Answer
It may not be what you think.

What’s wrong with being gay? Answer
Homosexual behavior versus the Bible: Are people born gay? Does homosexuality harm anyone? Is it anyone’s business? Are homosexual and heterosexual relationships equally valid?

What does the Bible say about same sex marriages? Answer

Can a gay or lesbian person go to heaven? Answer
If a homosexual accepts Jesus into his heart, but does not want to change his lifestyle, can he/she still go to Heaven?

What should be the attitude of the church toward homosexuals and homosexuality? Answer

Read stories about those who have struggled with homosexuality

evils of Communism

SUICIDE—What does the Bible say? Answer

If a Christian commits suicide, will they go to Heaven? Answer

Featuring: Javier BardemReinaldo Arenas
Johnny DeppBon Bon / Lieutenant Victor
Sean PennCuco Sanchez
John OrtizJuann Abreu
Diego Luna … Carlos
Michael Wincott … Heberto Zorilla Ochoa
See all »
Director: Julian Schnabel—“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007)
Producer: Jon Kilik
Distributor: Fine Line Features

“Before Night Falls” is Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir of the same name. The film, like the book, traces Arenas’ life: his birth in rural Cuba in 1943, his youth as the poor son of a single mother, his education as a writer, his struggles to publish work considered counterrevolutionary by the Cuban government, his imprisonment, his eventual release from Cuba (thanks to the 1980 Mariel boatlift), and his immigration to the U.S. where he achieved some recognition and success before contracting AIDS and dying in 1980.

Arenas’ writings evoke rural poverty in a realistic and unsympathetic way. The stories of his youth are exceptionally vivid: the dirt pit that was his crib, his battles with intestinal parasites (worms with feet that would rebel angrily when expelled), the violent battles amongst the animals on his grandfather’s farms and the violent battles inside the mostly female inhabited shack in which he lived with his grandparents, his aunts and his mother. All the tales beat with realism and poetry. The everyday details of a life impeded, hardened and inspired by poverty and oppression reminded me of the work of some of the 20th Century Italian writers such as Carlo Levi and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who imbued common everyday life with a face of stinging beauty. I found other Latin writers (Neruda or Garcia Marquez) too dreamy and grandiloquent for my tastes. After reading them, Arenas was a breath of fresh air. I particularly appreciated his blinders-off, nonideological, first hand treatment of the experiences he understands.

Schnabel soft-peddles the politics. Castro is seen in a few scenes shouting speeches to the flag-waving crowds. These scenes are of a young Castro before he became the tired cartoon character with the grey beard, the stubby cigar and the faded army fatigues that the National Council of Churches and the U.S. Department of Justice was genuflecting in front of during the Elian Gonzalez debacle. Schnabel focuses on Arenas’ life in Communist Cuba, a life that became a struggle to live free, to talk free and to write free.

The film works best when it reveals a man who lives to write, whose greatest passion is to put his perceptions of the world on a page. The budding author sees his stories as a kind of redemption from his family’s curse of poverty and as a way of giving meaning to the struggles he and his fellow Cubans face. This film is very different from “Quills”, another film about a writer (France’s Marquis de Sade) which was released about the same time as “Before Night Falls”. Arenas wrote to illuminate the human condition, not to degrade it. “Before…” has a natural, close to the heart feel. “Quills” is pretentious and overwrought. It doesn’t even stick to the true facts of Sade’s life. Unlike “Quills”, Shnabel’s film rings true. It hurts to watch the writer and his countrymen suffer. It hurts to watch their moral failings. But it is uplifting to see them struggle against diversity, even when their gains are small.

Schnabel has more experience in the world of art—more specifically, the hyped-up, glitzy art world of the 1980s when his paintings became very popular—than he does in the realm of film. His first feature, “Basquiat” was also a biographical film. It tried to depict the life of New York painter Jean Michel Basquiat who caused a furor in the eighties with his cataclysmic two-dimensional cityscapes and died of a heroin overdose in his early twenties. Unfortunately, Basquiat’s life story and artistic journey seemed to elude Schnabel who seemed more interested in the art world as a scene than as a culture. The artist became defined not so much by his work as by the list of people who bought his work. There are no such pretensions in “Before Night Falls”. Even 1980s New York has lost the shimmer. It’s now a dark world where disease lurks, a modern day equivalent of Thomas Mann’s Venice. Arenas has escaped the horrors of Communism only to be faced with another horror, one he cannot escape from.

The movie’s greatest strength is the performance of Javier Bardin as Arenas. A Spanish actor (“Live Flesh”, “Jamon, Jamon”) appearing in his first English language film, he is a revelation. His heavy brooding eyes and full mouth produce a range of emotions from joy to passion to horror. His best scene takes pace when he applies for approval to be taken away on the Mariel boats to the United States. Castro will only send known homosexuals or people with criminal records (who said Fidel never gave the U.S. anything). Arenas, a homosexual, must convince the visa guards that he is a verifiable homosexual. He has to talk the talk and walk the walk. Bardin does not play the scene for laughs. He portrays a man embarrassed by what he does but too dedicated to a quest to let a once in a lifetime opportunity pass. His body performs the pony show but his eyes have the glare of the steadfast in them. They are eyes that will not be mocked. Bardin’s performance is the best one I’ve seen an actor give in some time.

“Before Night Falls” has few Christian values to commend it. Homosexuality is depicted, at times graphically. There is one unfortunate scene which mocks religion (a party in which the revelers dress up like bishops and nuns as they drink and dance). My strongest objection was to the ending which depicts Arenas’ suicidemurder (his room-mate “helps” him to die). The portrayal of Arenas’ death is factual, and fortunately not romanticized. But it is disturbing, nonetheless.

I still must commend a film that exposes the evils of Communism, the greatest enemy of Christianity in the past century. Very few movies reveal Marxism for what it truly is. This film and last year’s wonderful “East/West” hopefully represent a new trend in cinema which will take an honest look at the effect of Communism on the lives—cultural and spiritual—of people who suffer under its excesses.

Viewer Comments
Movie Critics
nearly every scene features some kind of homosexual image, ranging from effeminate behavior to frank statements about homosexual sex to one brief, graphic homosexual sex act without nudity. In addition, full male frontal nudity occurs a few times in the film.
…sexually related dialogue is also present, while a smattering of profanity is also…