Saturday, February 24, 2007

Before Night Falls

The verdict: a bittersweet, dream-like, impressionistic view of a tortured artist's life. Javier Bardem is excellent.
The rating: 7/10

Set against the backdrop of Revolution-era Cuba in the 1950's and 60's, 'Before Night Falls' is a biopic of Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas, documenting his tempestuous life from childhood in rural Cuba in the 1940's, through his career as a novelist in Communist Castro-controlled Cuba in the 1960's and 1970's. Arenas' early literary output attracted positive critical attention while he worked at the Biblioteca Nacional, where he entered various literary competitions. By the late 60's, his published novels and openly gay lifestyle were attracting the wrong sort of attention from the oppressive military forces, and he became known as something of an anti-establishment figure. Arenas was eventually imprisoned for publishing a novel abroad without the consent of the government, and for 'ideological deviation' from the cultural mores espoused by Castro's regime. This movie is the essentially the story of how Arenas survived all these experiences.

Javier Bardem plays the Cuban novelist, and if you are unfamiliar with the Spanish actor, PCMR arches an eyebrow suspiciously in your general direction. This Spanish actor is something of a force of nature, first coming to the attention of PCMR in 'The Sea Inside', an heavyweight performance of the highest order, albeit in a film that some may consider melodramatic. Given that he is a Spanish actor, and not short of talent, he has also turned up in an Almodovar or two, and PCMR also remembers a pretty excellent Bardem performance in 'Live Flesh', a quirky movie, even when measured against Almodovar's own off-beat standards. In 'Before Night Falls', Bardem again delivers an excellent performance, and literally becomes the character, to the point where the audience forgets the actor is performing. Bardem is also playing a character that requires a real physical transformation, as Arenas' demeanour is introverted and, well, quite gay.. but Bardem pulls it off. (Ahem.. I say! More tea, vicar? - Ed) These are just some of the hallmarks of a great performance in my book, and Bardem delivers on both counts.

For novelty value, Johnny Depp also turns up in this movie in a couple of excellent cameos, as too does Sean Penn, but to less effect. Depp play two characters, and his first appearance is gut-bustingly funny, but fans of Jack Sparrow may not want to watch. No spoilers here, but this 'part' has to be seen to be believed!

Revolution-era Cuba lends itself well to cinematic represenation, with its latin rhythms, cocktails, fat cigars, and heady atmosphere of sexual revolution providing ample material for the director with a good eye and sufficient talent. Julian Schnabel really captures the moment and the ambience of the era, combining the exhilaration of wild parties with the constant threat provided by the omnipresence of the oppressive military forces.

The style Schnabel adopts is a dream-like, impressionistic view of Arenas' life. There are numerous dream sequences, most often when Arenas is facing difficult moments, but there are many of these, as the guy did not have an easy life, by any means. His character is part Walter Mitty, part Oscar Wilde, and always interesting to watch.

I would recommend 'Before Night Falls', but be warned folks, it's a little 'arthouse'. There are no simple conclusions drawn, and the style adopted by the script leaves a lot to the imagination of the audience, but PCMR would argue that this is no bad thing. The movie is shocking in moments, but generally bittersweet in tone, and it will make you feel better about your own struggles. Relative to what Arenas went through, still coming out the other side with his literary legacy intact, you can't help but compare your problems to potatoes of the smaller variety. Bardem's performance is worth the ticket price alone, and Johnny Depp's cameos are worthy of more than a little novelty value. But above all, this is an impressionistic, dream-like account of a life worth hearing about.

1 comment:

reel inspiration said...

Hi, Paddy,

Thanks for recommending this movie on my blog. After reading your review, I put it on my "films to see" list.

I just saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Amazing filmmaking! I was so into the main character's point of view that it felt like my own train of thought. Now that's great directing, cinematography and editing!

(Say, the link you posted on my blog didn't work. Try e-mailing the link to yourself and then copy and paste it onto the blog. That seems to activate the links for me.)

Paddy, I like your reviewing style. If you would ever like to write a review of an inspiring, (hopeful), thought provoking film, I would be interested in having you as a guest reviewer on the Reel Inspiration blog.


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