Before Night Falls

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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner18/06/2001

Running time: 135 mins
Three stars out of five

Highly artistic biopic from artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel, featuring a magnificent performance by Bardem.

New York artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s previous film was Basquiat – another film about the life of an artist. In his second film, his subject is Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem, Oscar-nominated in his first English language role), and the film charts the major events in his life.

From growing up in abject poverty, to the homosexual lifestyle under the sexual liberation of post-Revolutionary Cuba, through his imprisonment and torture as a dissident and his eventual self-exile to New York before his death from AIDS in 1990.

Before Night Falls is an extremely poetic film – Schnabel is much more interested in conveying the poetry than in constructing a narrative, and he uses fantasy, flashbacks, voice-over (the film is mostly in English but the poems are read in the original Spanish) and lush photography to achieve this lyrical effect.

Unfortunately this means that the actual story suffers as a result, and although there are title cards with times and places, there is little sense of time actually passing, leading some of the sequences to seem disjointed.

The acting is superb – it’s official: Bardem was robbed at the Oscars. He gives an incredible physical performance here, transforming his entire body, the way he moves, the way he walks, and so on. Usually cast as a macho character (such as in Jamon, Jamon or Golden Balls), he does a terrific job of conveying Arenas’ effete mannerisms and frailty.

There are also a couple of high-profile cameos: a baffling one from Sean Penn (as a dusty peasant) and a pair of bizarre performances from Johnny Depp, firstly as transvestive Bon-Bon (who helped Arenas smuggle an entire novel out of jail by hiding the pages in his rectum) and then, seconds later, as a sadistic jail guard who torments Arenas.

Apparently the idea of characters playing two parts has its roots in Arenas’ work, but even if this is the case, it doesn’t work here and the big-name cameos definitely over-balance the film – as excellent as Depp is, you can’t help thinking ‘Ooh, it’s Johnny Depp in drag…’

At over two hours, the film is perhaps slightly too long, but Bardem’s stunning performance makes it worth seeing. Recommended.

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Content updated: 20/07/2019 21:03

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