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Painterly Vision 

Before Night Falls (R)
Fine Line Features

Before Night Falls is a visually stunning interpretation of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas' memoir of the same title. Arenas was a participant in, then a victim of, Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution, persecuted both for his forbidden writings and for his overt and pleasure-seeking homosexuality, and Before Night Falls chronicles his desires, both literary and sexual, and the price he paid for both.

Artist Julian Schnabel (who also directed Basquiat) directed Before Night Falls, and his visual sensibility is the dominant motif of the film. The landscape of Cuba, both in the early impoverished days of Arenas' childhood in the lush countryside and in the later years of a deserted Havana, are stunning and utterly haunting. Unabashedly an "art house" film, the movie alights again and again in territory rarely staked out by more mainstream filmmakers. Haunting scenes like Arenas' harrowing solitary confinement in a cell too small to stand or lay in, majestic scenes like the glorious sunset over the Caribbean, uplifting scenes as when Arenas finally arrives in New York and drives through the canyons of New York City in a convertible with snowflakes wafting over his face, all bring a new color and light to the filmmaking.

In addition to great cinematography, Schnabel also did a fine job of casting. There has been some hype about small appearances by Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, but the movie is really carried by Spanish actor Javier Bardem who does a brilliant job as the tormented Arenas. Both in discovering the great liberation of his newfound sexuality and in his more bitter days after his imprisonment and exile, Bardem captures the writer's vulnerability and perpetual hope that all might be possible some day.

Before Night Falls could easily have become little more than a grim catalog of dictatorship's excesses, for it is full of desperate and difficult days. But Schnabel's insistence on finding authenticity and beauty through film keeps the worst from happening. Indeed, the film is so visually interesting that it occasionally misses telling us some critical plot points that would help us understand just what is going on. In his glancing over the high points of Arenas' life, Schnabel occasionally forgets that he is trying to tell a coherent story, not merely provide a brilliant impression of a life.

Still, to my mind, all is forgiven in the details: the tan-and-white spectator shoes barely in the frame of the boat during the Mariel boat lift, the carefully deconstructed roof of an abandoned church, the "I Love New York" grocery bag that Arenas' companion uses to aid Arenas in his eventual suicide when the author is dying of AIDS in New York. Before Night Falls is a movie generated from the heart, from the gorgeous words of the author, from fine and passionate acting, and from Schnabel's own strong visual sense. It is a richly rewarding cinematic experience.

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