Before Night Falls


There is no
surprise that Javier Bardem’s exquisite performance as the late gay Cuban
novelist Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls is
worthy of praise. It is nuanced, thoughtful, and entirely convincing. What is
surprising is that it got nominated for an Oscar this year by the usually more
conservative Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s not that the
Academy hasn’t noticed the performances of gay characters before. Tom Hanks
won the Oscar for his portrayal of a man dying of AIDS in the 1993
and last year they awarded best actress to Hilary Swank for
her depiction of Brandon Teena, a transgendered person who was brutally
murdered in Boys Don’t Cry. But what is amazing about the recognition
of Bardem’s work is that his Reinaldo Arenas is a gay man who has an
extraordinarily healthy, rapacious appetite for sex and has little trouble
getting it.

Times have
changed and it makes perfect sense for the Academy to now acknowledge and
recognize gay, lesbian, transgender characters. Hollywood is, after all,
filled with gay people even if most of them are closeted. But it has always
made better sense for them to give Oscars to characters who are dying or
murdered—victims of famous Hollywood pity vote that rewards representations of
victimized, suffering, or dead Jews, blacks, women, and queers. It is true
that Arenas was persecuted under Castro’s anti-homosexual laws and, after
finally coming to America (and being dealt with equally harshly by the U.S.’s
degrading and incompetent health care system), eventually died of AIDS. But
Before Night Falls
presents this as almost an afterthought—the centrality
of the film is a celebration of Arenas’s sexuality and how it fuels and fires
his artistic imagination.

The delicate
balance between presenting an autobiographical story and accepting (and
promoting) a celebration of male homosexual behavior should not be that
difficult, but you’d be hard pressed to find many examples. The problem is
that in mainstream culture’s conceptualization of “art” the introduction of
(homo)- sexuality into a narrative makes it “pornographic.” Sure, most people
think about sex a great deal of the time and (whether they are having it or
not) it is vitally important to them, even central to their identities. But
the presentation of sexual actions or even fantasies for their own sake is
almost always frowned upon. Depictions of sex for the sake of sex is, in the
view of “normal” society, extremist, wrong, and bad art.

Born in 1943 in
rural poverty in Cuba, Arenas went on to become one of the country’s most
lauded novelists. From an early age he was as interested in getting laid as
making art. Arenas tells us about what he is reading, his friendships with
such great Cuban writers as Jose Lezama Lima and Virgilio Pinera, the sexual
tastes of these men, how many men the author had sexual contact with by 1972
(5,000), how he picked men up on the beach, how he decided to structure a
particular novel, how the Cuban literary establishment responded to Castro, as
well as endless other adventures and achievements. In Arenas’s world the line
between sex and creativity is so thin as to be invisible; the line between
being a sexually active homosexual and an artist is negligible.

Director Julian
Schnabel has brought, with the help of Cunningham O’Keefe’s script, Arenas’s
complex memoir to life without any compromise and Cunningham and Schnabel
never have avoid or downplay the importance Arenas places on sexuality. But
Schnabel has made changes in his translation from page to screen. Primarily
this has been a softening of Arenas’s anti-Castro sentiments. Before Night
was begun before its author left Cuba with the Mariel exodus in
1980, and was finished when he was in the last stages of AIDS in 1989.

relationship to Castro and the Cuban revolution is a complicated one. Having
grown up under Batista, he was a supporter of the revolution in its early
years, but soon ran afoul—along with Cuban literary lights such as Lima and
Pinera—when the government began to crack down on published writing that were
anti-government or not nationalistic enough. He also got into trouble when
participating in political protests, such as a rally against the Soviet
invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, that were seen as contrary to the
interests of the Cuban government. Arenas’s sexuality—which was very visible
in his public cruising behaviors—as well as denunciations from family members
of the “depraved lifestyle” also got him into trouble. Laws prohibiting
homosexual activity were enforced and he spent time in several jails. His
escapes from jail, as well as his attempts to leave Cuba illegally, resulted
in further sentences and complicated legal embroilments.

It is Arenas’s
resentments and anger at Castro and the Cuban government that fuels his later
work and Before Night Falls has a full share of this rage. The memoir
is fraught with emotional complications as Arenas’s outsider sex life becomes
entangled with his outside political and social life. Arenas repeatedly
conflates sexual excitement and adventure with danger: the recruits with whom
he is forced to work in the sugar fields are brimming with eroticism, jail
offers further sexual possibilities, sexual adventures are connected to all of
his attempts at escape. The eroticism of the memoir is inseparable from
Arenas’s experience of oppression—it is at once the cause and the relief, the
originator and the salve of his pain. Even his more aggressive anti-Castro
statements are interconnected with his eroticism. Arenas’s experiences, many
of which were emotionally and physically devastating, ultimately prevented him
from seeing anything good in the Castro regime. His last writings before his
suicide were a call for all Cubans to overthrow Castro.

Schnabel’s film
de-centers Arenas’s anti-Cuban passions and relocates them throughout the film
in more modified, narrative ways. We now see the injustices that Arenas faced,
but they are descriptive, not polemical. Schnabel has also managed to recreate
the lush beauty of Arenas’s prose, embedded in descriptions of the Cuban
landscape as well as snorkeling to look at strangers penises underwater,
without avoiding any of the harsher elements of the story. Arenas’s work is at
times an erotocized Christ narrative with little pretense of being anything
else. Here we have the artist as deity moving through his life of suffering
only to be redeemed by the grace of sex. This is what Schnabel captures so
vibrantly in the film: a heady swoon of the erotic, political, and the
religious that both seduces and, at times, appalls us with its bravado and

Javier Bardem
makes a perfect Reinaldo Arenas, blending sexuality and intelligence in his
performance so elegantly that they are inseparable. Schnabel also manages to
capture the craziness of Cuba after the revolution, both the excitement of new
social and economic freedoms as well as the crisis caused by the new
government’s attacks on personal and artistic independence. While none of the
suffering Arenas endured—arrests, imprisonment, confiscation of his work—is
ignored, Schnabel has focused more on the sexual component of his memoir. In
doing this he comes close to capturing the elusiveness of Arenas’s gossamer
narrative—the ways that sexuality infiltrates all of the other details of the
story—without ever betraying the basic politics of the piece. As an
independent film Before Night Falls is a testament to intelligence,
integrity, and eroticism—three qualities that Arenas promoted and appreciated
in his life and work.             Z


Bronski has been a regular contributor to Z since 1988. His writing’s have
also appeared in the
Village Voice, LA Times, and
The Advocate. He is the author of numerous books and
anthologies including
Culture Clash (South End Press) and
The Pleasure Principle (St. Martin’s).