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IN SHORT: For the Arthouse. [Rated R for strong sexual content, some language and brief violence. 130 minutes]
We have previously written that, sooner or later, there would be a serious film with homosexual characters or theme/events that would have appeal to the general heterosexual audience, which includes Cranky. We did a discussion of this in the review for The Broken Hearts Club which did not carry our "standard dollar rating". Here's the second such film for the year 2000, called Before Night Falls, based on the memoirs of an gay Cuban writer named Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem), renowned everywhere but in his homeland. Arenas was born in abject poverty in Cuba and died in almost the same as a free, "stateless person" in New York City. In Cuba he was relentlessly persecuted for his preferences. In New York, he would fight a different kind of battle.
We knew that much well in advance of seeing Before Night Falls. While any ability on our part to empathize with homosexuality as a life style is a bit beyond our reach, knowing persecution and being able to empathize with a character that is persecuted, is not. We've also had more than a fair share of gay friends lose the battle that concludes this flick, so that empathy is ready to kick in as well.
First a digression: Back in our days at NBC we had a gay compadre who refused to patronize "mainstream" movie houses because he was tired of having to sit through "heterosexual mush". We thought he was nuts and told him to grow some skin.
We meet Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem) as a baby. We hear his words, taken from his writings, as they narrate the early story that plays on screen. The discovery of his sexual preferences is presented matter of factly without the bells and whistles or histrionics that seem to be de rigeur in other movies with gay characters. Arenas embraced Castro's revolution, even as it appeared to allow a homosexual community to flourish in a Catholic country, and we clearly see a double standard in "official" Cuban life as to where gays stood in the scheme of things.
As the story progresses, Arenas establishes a life with an approved job in the national library. His boyfriend drives a Cadillac once owned by Errol Flynn and while his end of the deal is monogamous, the boyfriend is out on the dance floor nailing some drunk chica in full view. Arenas catches the eye of a guy at the bar wearing glasses, and the pair stroll out into the night. A point of view shot as hands take the glasses of the stranger's face. Slow move in. a romantic tilting of the head. Fade to black.
Thank you and good night.
We now comprehend what our late friend was talking about in that digression up the page. Were we to stick to the film school rules of what makes a movie "good" and the film student think mentality that derives from it (which in an unrelated case had a major print critic giving an "A" rating to a piece of pornography) we could shift into the "you may be uneasy with certain aspects of the film but trust us it's good for you" mode. We bring this particular scene to your attention because it is the push button that shifts the film from a story of persecution and survival to one of a gay community getting beat up by hypocritical men with guns.
The Castro regime clamps down. Arenas finds himself falsely accused of molesting some teens and, as an escapee from a local jail, he lives off the land, and from the kindness of strangers. It is that driving sexual need that gets him caught and jailed as a common criminal -- Castro apparently had reeducation camps for the gender confused -- the intent being that the hard core criminal element would quickly put an end to the man's life. Not only does Arenas survive, he thrives and manages to smuggle manuscripts out of prison to a waiting publisher in France. That is a dynamite story. Had Schnabel's emphasis remained on the universal aspects of persecution this otherwise well made flick would have had a stronger and more universal appeal.
If nothing else, the one thing every viewer of director Julian Schnabel's second directorial stint will take away is a very vivid memory of co-star Johnny Depp in drag, as a smuggler inside a Cuban prison. Depp does double duty as a prison commandant that Arenas fantasizes about. Sean Penn also contributes a small performance.
No dollar rating for the same reason that The Broken Hearts Club didn't get one. That one kiss blew us out of the proper audience for this film. We're not going to let our baggage get in the way of what otherwise would probably have netted a $4 (strictly arthouse) rating. There is more to empathize with in Before Night Falls than in Broken Hearts Club but theoretical acceptance of a lifestyle is quite a different thing from seeing it hinted at on the big screen.
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