Release Date(s)2000 (October 24, 2023)
Studio(s)Grandview Pictures/Fine Line Features (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Movies often bring true events to a wide audience and have been instrumental in revealing abuses in authoritarian countries and their effects on individuals caught up in political turmoil. Before Night Falls is the harrowing story of Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas and his tribulations under the Castro regime.
Based on Arenas’ 1993 posthumous memoir, Before Night Falls introduces us to Arenas as a poverty-stricken child in pre-revolutionary Cuba and later as a promiscuous gay adult. As a boy, Arenas is inspired to join Castro’s communist revolutionaries but as an adult (Javier Bardem) he’s imprisoned for homosexuality. The film follows three main threads of Arenas’ life: his disillusion with Castro, his persecution by the government for his sexuality, and how he deals with being a banned artist.
After winning a prize for an early book, Arenas is constantly under the watchful eyes of government censors. Supporters help him smuggle manuscripts out of the country to be published in other nations. Arenas’ homosexuality also makes him a target of the totalitarian regime and he’s imprisoned on false charges of child molestation. The writer begins to break in prison under the inhumane physical treatment and psychological torture. Upon his release, he tries repeatedly to escape the island. The second part of the film chronicles his life in New York.
Bardem, who was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for this role, embodies the multi-faceted Arenas. His heavily Spanish-accented English adds to his performance’s believability and he has an actual physical resemblance to the real Arenas. This is a role that requires a gamut of emotions—patriotism, hedonism, misery, passion, joy, terror, desperation—reflecting the colorful life Arenas led. Briefly, the teenage Arenas is played by director Julian Schnabel’s son, Vito Maria Schnabel, but it’s Bardem’s portrayal of the adult Arenas that’s most vivid. Bardem conveys grace, sensitivity, and sincerity in his manner and how he reacts to others. When an editor tells him he’s “born to write,” we see a mixture of sheer pleasure and pride in his expression.
Also in the cast are Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow) and Sean Penn (Milk). Depp plays a dual role as a sadistic prison official and a transvestite inmate who has a talent for concealment and smuggles out Arenas’ manuscripts in his body cavities. Penn has a quick cameo as Cuco Sanchez, a gold-toothed peasant.
Director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) presents Before Night Falls in a non-linear structure. Characters come and go sporadically, presenting a tapestry of Arenas’ life. Rather than dwell on the hellish aspects of Arenas’ life—though they aren’t avoided—Schnabel emphasizes the joy of living, even in the face of despair. The director celebrates a Cuban life beyond Castro with color, music, and camaraderie the focus. Blending joie de vivre with soul-crushing events is Schnabel’s gift.
Before Night Falls was shot by directors of photography Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas on 35 mm film with Arriflex 35 BL4S and Arriflex 535 cameras with Zeiss Super Speed lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Picture quality is free of distracting imperfections and retains good grain quality. Many sequences set in Cuba before the revolution contain bold colors. Vivid greens, deep yellows, and especially bright reds dominate the palette. Scenes in which Arenas is imprisoned are darker, with mostly earth tones. Johnny Depp, as the transvestite inmate Bon Bon, is arrayed in a print dress, yellow wig, pink headband, collar ruffle, and heavy make-up. Actual, seldom-seen color footage of revolutionaries in trucks and celebrating the revolution are intercut with scripted scenes to give the film a documentary feel.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear for the most part but Javier Bardem’s off-screen narration is difficult to understand. I had to watch the film with subtitles to catch everything he was saying. It takes a while to get accustomed to his accent. Occasionally, characters will speak in Spanish, and the subtitles are helpful. The primary sound effects are crowds cheering, ambient noise at a dock, truck engines, Cubans dancing, and a prison official shouting threats at Arenas. Carter Burwell’s score contributes to mood without overwhelming the narrative. Actors’ movements from left to right and right to left are recorded effectively, providing a natural stereo effect.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from Warner Archive include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Julian Schnabel, Javier Bardem, Lazaro Gomez-Carriles, Carter Burwell, and Xavier Perez Grobet
- Excerpts from Improper Conduct 1983 Interview with Reinaldo Arenas (6:59)
- Behind-the-Scenes Home Movie by Lola Schnabel (7:43)
- Little Notes on Painting Artwork by Julian Schnabel 14:32)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (2:16)
Audio Commentary – The filmmakers (director Julian Schnabel, actor Javier Bardem, screenwriter Lazaro Gomez-Carriles, composer Carter Burwell, and co-director of photography Xavier Perez Grobet) note that telling Reinado Arenas’ story is telling the story of Cuba. “Every moment of the film is an important moment.” Time was taken to get the facts right. Each of the filmmakers discusses how he became involved in the project. Filters were used to enhance the color. Seldom-seen original color footage of the revolutionaries was incorporated. Arenas’ book tells what was good about the revolution and what was not. From his time living in a Texas border town and traveling a lot in Mexico, director Julian Schnabel felt he knew the people in Arenas’ story. Similarities between Mexico and Cuba are discussed. Javier Bardem started out studying art but found it was too focused on theory. He found his way into film working as an extra. A “free style” was used in making the film. Nothing was rigidly planned. Though the actors knew their lines, “improvisation made it more free.” Schnabel wanted to bring the actors “into my orbit.” The autocratic lifestyle in Cuba with the State in every aspect of people’s lives was a huge departure from pre-Castro Cuba. Many Cuban actors would not have been permitted to work on Before Night Falls because of its criticism of the Castro government. Bardem speaks about how his family suffered under Franco in Spain and comments on how American audiences will accept violence in films but shy away from sex. Schnabel made Bardem feel he could do anything, but Bardem explains he had to be on his toes to keep his portrayal fresh. Schnabel talks about how his life experiences and the films he’s seen affect his directing choices. Arenas’ life would have been easier if he had gone along with everyone else. He wrote a total of twenty books. Before Night Falls was filmed for 60 days during the rainy season in Mexico, with the balance shot in New York City. Schnabel concludes with the philosophical observation that if you have an interior life, then you have a life. “I don’t think he will ever die.”
Interview Excerpts – Reinado Arenas talks about his early life and how he smuggled his books out of Cuba. He describes the various prisons in Cuba and how he was subjected to a “rehabilitation program.” When he went to prison, his home and possessions were confiscated by the government. Though he was a top-selling author around the world, in Cuba he was a “non-person.” He discusses a number of restrictive laws under Fidel Castro.
Behind-the-Scenes Home Movie – Lola Schnabel, daughter of director Julian Schnabel, narrates this footage shot in Mexico during the making of Before Night Falls. The cast and crew appear to be having a good time. There’s no technical information presented, only personal recollections of the filming.
Little Notes on Painting Artwork – Julian Schnabel’s paintings and sculptures have been exhibited all over the world and are in both private and public collections, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Met and several foreign museums. In a warehouse where they are stored, Schnabel shows and discusses his paintings from different periods.
Before Night Falls celebrates the Cuba of a bygone era while providing an unflinching look at the horrors of a repressive State. The film is a testament to an artist’s survival against overwhelming odds and a gripping portrayal of the indomitability of the human spirit.
- Dennis Seuling