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'Before Night Falls'

Bardem is mesmerizing in 'Before Night Falls'

Friday, February 23, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If you, like many Americans, found yourself asking "Javier who?" on the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, you weren't alone. He was the least well-known of the best actor nominees and his film, "Before Night Falls," only arrives today at the Denis and Squirrel Hill theaters.

'Before Night Falls'

RATING: R for strong sexual content, some language and brief violence

STARRING: Javier Bardem

DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel



The 31-year-old Spanish actor competing against Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Geoffrey Rush and Ed Harris is Javier Bardem, a Spanish actor playing Cuban writer and poet Reinaldo Arenas. "Before Night Falls" takes it name from the posthumously published memoir of Arenas, who contracted AIDS and died at 47 while living in New York City.

He was a man who wrote lovingly of -- and on -- his manual typewriter:

"... With a tinkling sound the music begins, then speeds up more and more
Walls, trees, streets, cathedrals, faces and beaches...
Cells, mini-cells, huge cells
Starry nights, bare feet, pines, clouds
Hundreds, thousands, a million parrots, stools, a climbing plant
The walls recede, the roof vanishes, and you float quite naturally
You float uprooted, dragged off, lifted high..."

Born to a single mother and raised in his grandparents' home in what looks like a lean-to with a thatched roof, Reinaldo demonstrated a sensitivity for poetry at a young age. When his teacher comes to the family's door to share this news, the dinner table immediately falls silent and the angry grandfather takes this as a shameful betrayal.

His story is a remarkable one, inseparable from the historic highs and lows in his homeland and dramatized by director Julian Schnabel: the overthrow of Batista; the rise of Fidel Castro; the dizzying cocktail of energy, education, music and sexual freedom that was Havana in the early '60s; the later crackdown and imprisonment of artists and homosexuals such as Arenas; the foolhardy but frantic attempts to escape by hook, crook, inner tube or hot-air balloon; and the 1980 Mariel boatlift which deposited 125,000 Cubans on American shores.

As a young man writing what would become his first novel, "Singing From the Well" (the only book published in Cuba), Arenas was warned about the power of the word. "People who make art are dangerous to any dictatorship." They create beauty and that's the enemy, he is cautioned.

He becomes an enemy, especially after he is wrongly accused of sexual molestation. The writer lands in the notorious El Morro prison where his writing skills become survival skills. It's there that he encounters the characters both played by Johnny Depp: Bon Bon, a flamboyant transvestite, and a brutal lieutenant.

In the movie's production notes, director Schnabel says the dual casting was inspired by a theme in Arenas' work. "One character can be two, three different personages; somebody can be a man and a woman at the same time." In another celebrity cameo, look for Sean Penn as a peasant wearing a straw hat, driving a cart and trying to steer young Reinaldo in the right direction.

Bardem, who took the role first offered to Benicio Del Toro (himself a supporting actor nominee for "Traffic"), had to master Cuban-inflected Spanish and Cuban-accented English, Entertainment Weekly reports.

Although some of the dialogue occasionally is hard to understand and moviegoers need to realize the reasons for the R rating (naked bodies, including male genitalia), Bardem is as mesmerizing as his fellow nominees. We're not just watching a character's arc as castaway or gladiator, we're watching a man's life, rebirth, near death and, finally, death. You can't help but be moved.

"Before Night Falls" is best on its Cuban turf, re-created in Mexico. The last decade of the poet's life has an unfocused, almost rushed feel until the very end, played out in real time.

As with "Goya in Bordeaux," another visually striking movie about an artist of a different kind, this doesn't answer all the questions and presumes the moviegoer is connecting the historic dots. Some of the supporting characters start to blend in after a while, too. In an effective gesture, however, Schnabel often forsakes dialogue for music, letting a Lou Reed or Laurie Anderson song carry the scene along.

I have no idea if Bardem physically resembles the man he plays. He inhabits his body and poet's soul, and that's what counts.

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