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Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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Before Night Falls (2000)

Homosexual unions are totally lacking in the conjugal dimension, which represents the human and ordered form of sexuality….As experience has shown, the absence of sexual complementarity in these unions creates obstacles in the normal development of children who would be placed in the care of such persons. They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood. Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.”

–from the recent Vatican document on gay unions

With the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.” –Fidel Castro

I would hazard a guess that mentioning Fidel Castro and homosexuality in my opening line is not a good way of avoiding controversy. The former topic divides a significant portion of the Hispanic communities across the Americas, the latter threatens to become the single most divisive issue on the Canadian socio-political scene. Julian Schnabel’s film Before Night Falls unflinchingly tackled both issues using the autobiography of the Cuban poet-novelist Reinaldo Arenas. Exiled from his homeland for the “anti-revolutionary” crime of being unashamedly homosexual and speaking up for freedom of speech, Arenas was one of the most powerful voices condemning the Castro regime.

A film of many voices, Before Night Falls has some which are beautiful—Arenas’ poetry in its original Spanish (“I am the angry and lonely child of always….”)—and none which are comfortable. This is not a story of the lives of gay men which caters to the viewer using the traditional overlay of humor. I use the word “caters” advisedly. From the original La Cage aux Folles, to its American remake as The Birdcage, to Priscilla of the Desert, to television’s Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, gay men have made have made significant yet fragile strides in widespread public acceptance. The unknown, the unfamiliar is the greatest source of fear and the media have done a good job of making us laugh with gays. The fragility comes from the fact that when the humor is dropped for more serious demands—inclusion of gay families in children’s books, adoption by homosexual couples, same-sex marriage—walls come crashing down hard. As Andrew Sullivan recently wrote in a fine essay in Time magazine (“Beware the Straight Backlash”): “It seems as if heterosexuals are willing to tolerate homosexuals, but only from positions of power.”

Reinaldo Arenas and the gay community of Havana never even got to the tolerance-from-a-position-of-power phase. They went directly to backlash. Homosexuality was an “infection.” For a fleeting moment, like the “Czech Spring” before the Russian tanks moved in, it seemed that the Castro revolution might be accompanied by a sexual revolution. There was a sense of being freed from all repressions. The gay scene moved out of the closets and onto the streets and beaches. It didn’t take the new government long to notice and to react. If we can experience vicious backlash in a country with gay Anglican priests, gay MPs, gay pride parades, and a clear Charter of Rights and Freedoms, imagine the reprisals in a country looking to the Soviet Union as a role model in dealing with dissidents.

At first merely hassled by the police and military, Arenas was later arrested on trumped-up charges of molesting minors. After a quick jailbreak and a period of life on the run, he was recaptured and sent to Havana’s infamous El Morro prison for almost two years. Ironically, the exaggerated charges against him laid on by state officials gave him a cachet of danger that helped him survive his initiation into prison life. When inmates later learned he was a writer, Arenas became their voice to the outside world. He continued to smuggle his own writings out by any means possible (including an anatomically-gifted transvestite named Bon Bon, played by the ever-unpredictable Johnny Depp). Other friends and ex-lovers were not so fortunate. They were brutalized, shot while “escaping,” disappeared into “re-education” camps, their voices silenced. By 1980, when Castro approved a mass exodus of “undesirables” including criminals, the insane, and homosexuals, Arenas had seen the writing on the wall. In one of Before the Fall’s most disturbing scenes, Arenas “confesses” to being a homosexual to an army officer responsible for approving exit visas. The officer questions him with the brutally intimate distaste of a medieval Inquisitor. The tenuousness of survival under a dictatorship is brought home by that fact that a minor spelling change to his name, scribbled at the last moment by Arenas himself on his exit paper as he’s approaching the boat for Florida, probably saves his life when authorities use their lists of deportees for a last-minute settling of scores.

I don’t think Arenas ever imagined the United States to which he was fleeing to be a paradise. There’s the initial euphoria of freedom, lying on the hood of car, being driven through the first flakes of a New York snowfall. Then there’s the long trajectory of poverty, statelessness, illness. Arenas died, broken by AIDS and inadequate medical care, in a cheap apartment in New York City. I think he summed up the nature of his exile as well as anyone has ever done when he wrote that: “The difference between the communist and the capitalist system is that when they give you a kick in the ass in the communist system you have to applaud; in the capitalist system you can scream.”

Arenas’ true paradise was the rural Cuba of his childhood, with his mother and the lush green forests and the heavy rains and the waters of the sea that fed his imagination: “The splendour of my childhood was unique because of its absolute poverty and absolute freedom out in the open surrounded by trees, animals and people who were indifferent toward me.” Before the Fall’s harshest scenes are counterbalanced by these flashbacks to childhood. To the end of his life, Reinaldo saw himself as a “guajiro,” a simple peasant.

Actor Javier Bardem’s performance as Reinaldo is superb—from the preening strut of the successful young writer, to the increasingly paranoid dissident in the authorities’ crosshairs, to the suicidal wraith whose body crumbles under the assault of AIDS-related illnesses. Bardem’s acting is one of the reasons Before Night Falls succeeds in being a tribute to its subject’s life, rather than lament over his death or an anti-Castro diatribe. Bardem’s emotional range is impressive, unflinchingly honest, often discomfiting. There is no sugar-coating of gay relationships here—they are every bit as casual, spontaneous, manipulative, abusive, shallow, and profound as their heterosexual counterparts.

A good deal of the credit for the film’s impact also has to go to director Julian Schnabel (a well-known contemporary artist in his own right, whose previous film had been about Jean-Michel Basquiat). Schnabel has a unique approach to cinematography, editing, and the use of music. Much of the film’s potential bleakness is counterbalanced by a restlessly moving camera, odd high and low camera angles, and full advantage taken of the kinds of color saturations that help give countries such as Cuba and Mexico the sense of being locked into late 50’s or early 60’s time warps. Julian Schnabel also makes use of contemporary documentary footage, and shoots some scenes in a pseudo-documentary style.

And then there’s the music. As harsh as the political or sexual climate might be, this is also the Cuba where the verb “bailar” (to dance) is the eleventh commandment. Schnabel and composer Carter Burwell create swatches of silence interspersed with music-laced tableaux vivants. Faux documentary syncopates into moments of magic realism and hyperrealism. The final effect is one of watching and listening to a kind of brilliant monologue, interspersed with vivid pages from a painter/poet/musician’s scrapbook.

While I don’t quite buy into Arenas’ passionate anti-Castroism (Were gays or dissidents in Cuba any less persecuted under the Batista regime? Reinaldo’s grandfather packs up the family, moves to the city, and never speaks again after Reinaldo’s teacher tells his family he has a sensitivity to poetry!), the fact that eight of his nine novels had to be published abroad highlights the limitations of one-man, one-party rule. Despite virulent homophobia, Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg were not prophets without honour in their homeland and managed to be credited with “full human development.” It is the paradox of democracy that Reinaldo Arenas understood so well.

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

With all of the time that has passed since I first watched Before Night Falls, I’m no further ahead when it comes to understanding the Cuban revolution or the treatment of dissidents and homosexuals in Cuba. I’ve never read a biography of Fidel Castro, nor have I read a detailed history of Cuba in the 20th century. I really should make an attempt to fill these gaps in my education. As an experiment, I asked ChatGPT to provide me with a summary of attitudes towards homosexuality in Cuba, and I’m attaching the result below. It makes for interesting reading.

I also confess to not having read any of Reinaldo Arenas’s fiction in the years since I wrote my review. I’m currently half way through my copy of Before Night Falls, and any comments I have to make here result from this reading. Arenas’s memoir stands as a both a classic memoir of a certain kind of gay lifestyle (sexually voracious, utterly uninhibited, potentially self-destructive) with which I have had little contact in my own life outside of a couple of casual acquaintances and the novels of William Burroughs, and a passionate denunciation of all things Castro. Arenas is the voice of all of those refugees who have risked their lives to escape a Cuba they see as totalitarian and creatively & socially asphyxiating. I’m including some passages from Before Night Falls that capture both Arenas’s lifestyle choices and his disgust with Castro and the revolution.

The one observation I will make from reading his memoirs is that Arenas lets his bitterness and his hatred of Castro blind him to the horrors experienced by so many others during the course of recent Central and South American history. I’m much more familiar with the histories of countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Argentina than I am with that of Cuba, and was shocked to read claims by Arenas that he “proved that [Castro’s] dictatorship was worse than Pinochet’s,” that “the leader [Castro] who had fought against Batista was now a dictator much worse than Batista, as well as a mere puppet of the Stalinist Soviet Union,” and that “as a country Cuba has produced scoundrels, criminals, demagogues, and cowards in numbers disproportionate to its population.” These statement might go down well with Republican extremists in the U.S., but I believe they demonstrate how one’s own obsessive hatred can utterly blind one to the sufferings of others. The surviving families of the executed and disappeared in Chile and Argentina, and of the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, would likely not find evil “disproportionately” active in Cuba. Even Arenas’s repeated use of the term “concentration camp” to describe the detention centers for Cuban dissidents is deliberately incendiary in a way that devalues the horrors of the Nazi genocide. Arenas asserts that it was the Castro regime that doubled down on persecution of homosexuals, yet I find it difficult to believe that life for gays was ever easy or safe in the Spanish culture of machismo that reigned in much of Central and South America. I suspect that Castro targeted homosexuals as much for their poltical dissidence as for their sexuality.

That said, both Arenas’s memoir and the film based on it remain powerful documents. The suffering and sacrifices were real, the commitment to transforming life into literature absolute, and the descriptions of a certain kind of gay lifestyle utterly unapologetic. Javier Badem’s portrayal of Arenas is one of his finest. This was his first Oscar nomination as a leading actor. He’s had two other nominations, and in 2008 took home the hardware for No Country for Old Men. Director Julian Schnabel has made only half a dozen films in the past two decades, but all have been memorable.

Arenas grew up in a household of women. For a glimpse of what his life might have been in a less repressive, less revolutionary time & place, the life & novels of Quebec’s Michel Tremblay provide a kind of alternate, life-affirming reality.

Some extracts from Before Night Falls:

I always thought that my family, including my mother, saw me as a weird creature, useless, confused, or crazy; a being outside the framework of their lives. They were probably right.


Our generation, the generation born in the forties, has been a lost generation, destroyed by the communist regime.

The best part of our youth was wasted cutting sugarcane, doing useless guard duty, attending countless speeches (in which the sae litany was repeated over and over), in trying to get around repressive laws; in the incessant struggle to get a decent pair of jeans or a pair of shoes, in hoping to rent a house at the beach or read poetry or have our erotic adventures, in a struggle to escape the constant persecution and arrests by the police….Why this relentless cruelty against us? Why this cruelty against all of us who did not want to be part of the banal tradition and dull daily existence so characteristic of our Island?

I think greatness and dissidence have never been well tolerated by our governments nor by a geat many of our people. It is not in our tradition. The objective has always been to reduce everything to the lowest, most vulgar level. Those who would not conform to that accepted level of mediocrity have always been looked at with hostility and have always been pilloried….


The train was full of recruits; everybody was sexually aroused and having sex in the bathrooms, under the seats, anyplace. Hiram used his foot to masturbate a recruit who seemed to be sleeping on the floor. I was lucky enough to be able to used both hands….To get to the beach was like entering paradise because all the young people wanted to make love; and there were always dozens of them ready to go into the bushes. Many youngmen made love with me in the changing stalls of La Concha public beach, desperate with the knowledge that this instant was, perhaps, unique and had to be enjoyed to the fullest, because at any moment the police could come and arrest us. After all, those of us who were not yet in a concentration camp were privileged; we had to take advantage of our freedom. We looked for men everywhere and we found them….One day we began to take inventory of th men we had slept with until then; this was sometime in 1968. I came to the conclusion, after complicated mathematical calculations, that I had sex with about five thousand men….All dictatorships are sexually repressive and anti-life. All affirmations of life are diametrically opposed to dogmatic regimes. It was logical for Fidel Castro to persecute us, not to let us fuck, and to try to suppress any public display of the life force.


I think that in Cuba there was never more fucking going on than in those years, the decade of the sixties, which was precisely when ll the new laws against homosexuals came into being, when the persecutions started and concentration camps were opened, when the sexual act became taboo while the “new man” was being proclaimed and masculinity exalted. Many of the young men who marched in Revolutionary Square applauding Fidel Castro, and many of the soldier who marched, rifle in hand and with martial expressions, came to our rooms after the parades to cuddle up naked, and show their real selves, sometimes revealing a tenderness and true enjoyment such as I have not been able to find again anywhere else in the world.


I think that th sexual revolution in Cuba actually came about as the result of the existing sexual repression. Perhaps as a protest against the regime, homosexuality began to flourish with ever-increasing defiance. Moreover, since the dictatorship was considered evil, anything it proscribed was seen in a positive light by the nonconformists, who in the sixties were already in the majority. I honestly believe that the concentration camps for homosexuals, and the police officers disguised as willing young men to entrap and arrest homosexuals, actually resulted in the promotion of homosexual activities.


To me, sitting down at the typewriter was, and still is, something extraordinary. I would be inspired (like a pianist) by the rhythm of those keys and they would carry me along. Paragraphs would follow one another like ocean waves, at times more intense, at others less so; sometimes like huge breakers that would engulf page after page, before the next paragraph. My typewriter was an old iron Underwood, but to me it was a magic instrument.


While the shameful spectacle of [Heberto] Padilla’s confession was taking place, Castro’s government was organizing what was called the First Congress of Education and Culture, which significantly concerned everything that opposed what its title implied; it was evident that what he wanted was to put an end to all Cuban culture. Even positions concerning fashion were dictated there. Fashion was being identified as ideological diversionism and a subtle penetration by Yankee imperialism. The cruelest attacks of that congress were unleashed against homosexuals….Public humiliation has always ben one of Castro’s favorite weapons: the degrading of people in front of a public always eager to make fun of any weakness in another, or of any person who has lost favor. It was not enough to be accused; you had to say you were sorry and beat your chest before an audience that would applaud and laugh. After that, shorn and handcuffed, you had to purify yourself of your weaknesses in a sugarcane field or by doing some other agriculture work.


Unvetted for accuracy, here is ChatGTP’s answer to my request some information about the treatment of homosexuals in Cuba, downloaded on March 17, 2023:

As an AI language model, I don’t have personal opinions, but I can provide you with factual information.

Homosexuals were initially persecuted in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. In the early years of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, homosexuality was considered a “bourgeois decadence” and a “sign of mental illness.” As a result, many gay Cubans lost their jobs, were harassed and discriminated against. Homosexuality was also a crime punishable by imprisonment.

However, Cuba’s attitude towards the LGBT community changed over the years. In the early 1990s, as part of a political and economic restructuring known as the “special period,” homosexuality was legalized, and the government began to take steps to protect and respect the rights of the LGBT community. The government also established the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), which advocates for LGBT rights and provides counselling and support for the community.

Today, Cuba is considered one of the more progressive countries in Latin America when it comes to LGBT rights. While there is still some discrimination and harassment, there are legal protections for LGBT individuals, and there is a growing acceptance of the community in Cuban society.

  1. “Homosexuality and Revolution in Cuba” by Emily J. Kirk. This academic article explores the treatment of homosexuals in Cuba before and after the revolution, focusing on changes in policy and attitudes towards LGBTQ individuals.

  2. “Havana’s Gay Revolution” by Marcia Gallo. This book traces the history of LGBTQ activism in Cuba, from the early 20th century to the present day, and discusses the role of the government in shaping the movement.

  3. “Queer Havana: The Margins of Capitalism” by Hannah Schwadron. This ethnographic study examines the experiences of LGBTQ individuals living in Havana and their interactions with the state, including access to healthcare and other social services.

  4. “Before Night Falls” by Reinaldo Arenas. This memoir by a gay Cuban writer tells the story of his life under the Castro regime, including his imprisonment and eventual emigration to the United States.

  5. “Transitions of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality in Cuba and Beyond” edited by Momin Rahman. This collection of essays includes several chapters that examine the treatment of LGBTQ individuals in Cuba from a range of perspectives, including cultural studies, political science, and sociology.

  6. “Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality” by Ian Lumsden. This article discusses the history of negative attitudes towards LGBTQ individuals in Cuban society and the government’s attempts to change these attitudes over time.

  7. “Patriarchy and Socialism: Women and Sexuality in Cuba” edited by Linda M. Whiteford and Cecilia L. Green. While not specifically focused on LGBTQ issues, this book includes several chapters that touch on the experiences of queer individuals in Cuba and their relationships with the state.

  8. “Homosexuality and Politics in Revolutionary Cuba” by Larry La Fountain-Stokes. This article explores the ways in which LGBTQ issues have been incorporated into Cuba’s revolutionary discourse and the challenges that queer activists continue to face.

  9. “The Sexual Traffic in Cuban Nationalism” by David William Foster. This book examines the role of sexuality and gender in Cuban nationalism, with a particular focus on LGBTQ issues and the government response to them.

  10. “Revolutionary Medicine: Health and the Body in Post-Soviet Cuba” by P. Sean Brotherton. While not primarily focused on LGBTQ issues, this book includes a chapter on the ways in which the Cuban healthcare system has addressed LGBTQ health needs over time.

Movie Information

Genre: Autobiography | LGBTQ
Director: Julian Schnabel
Actors: Javier Bardem, Olatz López Garmandia, Johnny Depp, Giovanni Florido
Year: 2000
Original Review: October 2003


Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse at the Circus [1916]

Krazy Kat goes a-wooing [1916]

Krazy Kat – Stork Exchange [1927]

The Hot-Cha Melody -Krazy Kat 1935

Krazy Kat – Keeping Up with Krazy

Book Trailer for “Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White” (HarperCollins)

The Best Comic of the Twentieth Century – Krazy Kat by George Herriman

Sarah Polley on her ‘surreal and wonderful’ Oscar win for Women Talking

I’ve admired Ms. Polley’s work for a long, long time, and reviewed three of her films for this column. This is definitely not one of those Academy Awards stories about dubious choices, dubious gestures, or dubious apparel.

The Oscars’ best picture might seem radical. But it’s as traditional as they come

This review of Everything Everywhere All At Once, by Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang, is the kind of thoughtful, balanced, nuanced critical evaluation that I’ve admired over the years in the best reviews of Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, Dave Kehr, A.O. Scott, and others. From Chang’s column:

Most deservedly of all — and yes, even this “EEAAO”-gnostic let out a cheer — Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian woman and only the second woman of color ever to win an Oscar for lead actress, a milestone as thrilling as it is ridiculous in over nine decades of the Academy Awards’ existence….

None of the movie’s wins — which included a supporting actress win for Curtis and a prize for Paul Rogers’ editing — came as a shock. Long before final ballots were turned in, the Oscar-night dominance of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” once dismissed as too zany for stuffy academy sensibilities, had hardened into destiny….

Somehow, the weird, wacky also-ran had ballooned into the most surefire awards juggernaut in recent memory — every award everywhere all at once! — a trajectory that echoes the drama of the movie itself. After all, if the biggest failure in the multiverse can turn out to be its savior, why can’t an unlikely awards contender defy its own statistical improbabilities and realize its Oscar dream?

The Academy Awards have, to their credit, become less and less statistic-dependent anyway. The academy is a more diverse, more international organization than it was several years ago, and its tastes are not easy to pin down. There is no easy-to-follow template for a best picture anymore (if there ever was), and films that enter the race reeking too obviously of traditional Oscar quality— a group that includes not only “The Fabelmans” but also two earlier Spielberg pictures, “The Post” and “West Side Story” — run the risk of falling by the wayside.

Downsizing” Liberal Hollywood: How the Film’s Christian Message Undermines Arguments for National Health Care

An in-depth review from Malcolm Aslett at the Bright Lights Film Journal. Aslett argues that the 2014 film Downsizing demonstrates how the primacy of a Christian/capitalist-based individualism, combined with the demonization of anything that can be labeled “socialism,” blocks progressive movements towards reform in the U.S. From Aslett’s article:

Downsizing is a dystopic satire on American values that has an unsurprising and credible core involving a sick and impoverished underclass. It is credible because the USA is alone among the advanced industrial nations in failing to provide universal health care, preferring, as the statistics clearly show, the most expensive and least efficient option. The film’s solution to this is the action of the good Samaritan. Why this rings true for many Americans is, I would argue, the result of an incessant cultural reinforcement of the idea of any practical change being regarding as socialist and contrary to the idea of (American) individualism. Those kooky Europeans and their social experiments! Communes. Bongo drums and cheesecloth shirts. As Dusan intimates, those things fall apart and they end up killing each other. Capitalism is the natural order. Injustice is inevitable. Even in what some might see as a liberal Hollywood film, the politics are reactionary and a reinforcement of the status quo. There is little room to see America as the odd one out, the result of a geographically marooned superpower with first a century of slavery and then a century of apartheid shaping a systemic disdain for its lower class.

Of course, the only social positions providing universal health care in this country are in the military. Rumor has it the armed forces are not generally favorable to leftist thinking, but this health-care business makes them look like a bunch of commies. Or does it? The history of national health care is tied to conservative nations with a strong military, the first occurring in Germany in the 1880s. The development of the British NHS required arguments from both sides of the aisle. David Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime Minister (1916-22), is famously quoted as saying “The white man’s burden had to be carried on strong backs.

Films Worth Talking About:

Almost Famous, Wonder Boys, You Can Count on Me, Traffic, George Washington, The Cell, High Fidelity, Pollock, [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon], Requiem for a Dream, Before Night Falls, Best in Show, Chuck and Buck, The Contender, Dancer in the Dark, Jesus’ Son, Rosetta, Shadow of the Vampire, The Terrorist, Dark Days, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, The Filth and the Fury, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, Endurance/South, All the Pretty Horses, An Affair of Love, The Big Kahuna, Boiler Room, Chicken Run, Chocolat, The Claim, Claire Dolan, The Color of Paradise, Frequency, Girl on the Bridge, Girlfight, Joe Gould’s Secret, L’Humanité, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Legend of Drunken Master, A Map of the World, The Perfect Storm, Place Vendome, Quills, Snow Falling on Cedars, Such a Long Journey, The Gift, Thirteen, Thirteen Days, Time Regained, Titan A.E., Two Family House, Two Women, The Virgin Suicides, What’s Cooking?, The Wind Will Carry Us, Nowhere to Hide, The Emperor’s New Groove, Love & Basketball, Bamboozled, Ratcatcher, Beau Travail, Yi Yi, Amores Perros, Falls, In the Mood for Love, Gohatto/Taboo, Erin Brockovich, Human Resources, Charlie’s Angels, Scary Movie, Rules of Engagement, The Patriot, The Beach, Gladiator, Momento, Code Unknown, The Circle, Chopper, Maelström, Snatch, Bring It On, X-Men, Gone in 60 Seconds, Malena, The Replacements, Remember the Titans, The Whole Nine Yards, Hollow Man, Final Destination, Mission Impossible II, Road Trip, What Women Want, Coyote Ugly, Bedazzled, Sexy Beast, [Me, Myself & Irene], Miss Congeniality, Battle Royale, Monarch of the Glen, Pitch Black, [Dude, Where’s My Car?], Vertical Limit, Shanghai Noon, Scream 3, Waking the Dead, 28 Days, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Aimee & Jaguar, American Psycho, Cast Away, Croupier, Dr. T & The Women, East Is East, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, Hamlet, The House of Mirth, Human Resources, Kadosh, The City (La Ciudad), Meet The Parents, Me Myself I, Mifune, My Dog Skip, Nurse Betty, Pola X, Return To Me, Small Time Crooks, Space Cowboys, State And Main, A Time For Drunken Horses, Tigerland, Time Code, The Tao of Steve, Unbreakable, Gormenghast

The Bigger Picture

Films: The Sea Inside (2004); No Country for Old Men (2007); The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007); Basquiat (1996); At Eternity’s Gate (2018)


Books: Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls, translated by Dolores M. Koch; Reinaldo Arenas, Singing from the Well; Reinaldo Arenas, The Color of Summer; Ada Ferrer, Cuba: An American History;

The Word on the Street

There’s a lyrical quality to this film that makes the brutality of the oppression it depicts seem almost tangible, and `Before Night Falls, ` directed by Julian Schnabel, is photographed in a way that gives much of it something of a documentary feel (and, indeed, some archival footage is included), which defines the drama and adds to the overall impact of the film….

o say that Bardem’s performance was worthy of an Oscar would be an understatement; along with Ed Harris (in `Pollock’), it was quite simply one of the two best of the year (2000). In order to bring Arenas to life, it was necessary for Bardem to capture all of the myriad complexities of the man and the artist, which he did– and to perfection. It’s a challenging role, and Bardem more than lives up to it, with a detailed performance through which he expresses the physical, as well as the emotional aspects of the character: His mannerisms, his walk, the body language that says so much about who he is; how he copes with living in a seemingly hopeless situation. By the end of the movie, because of Bardem, you know who Reinaldo Arenas was, and you’re not likely to forget him.
The most poignant scenes in the film are those in which Arenas’ words are being recited as the camera creates a visual context for them, looking out through the window of a moving car or bus at the streets, towns, buildings and people, as Arenas describes them. These scenes fill the senses and are virtually transporting; and it is in them that the true poetic nature of Arenas is made manifest. It’s beautiful imagery, and the contrast between the beauty of the words and the ugliness of the reality against which it is set is powerful. All of which is beautifully conceived and executed by Schnabel; an excellent piece of filmmaking. [jhclues]

There are scenes here where the sound effects track stops and this gorgeous cello music by Carter Burwell (composer of Being John Malkovich, Meet Joe Black, Man who Wasn’t There, with another beautiful score) plays while we watch Bardem sitting in a club while people dance around him, and the music tells us he is far away. It is a wonderful scene, akin to Kurosawa’s use of music in the brilliant burning of the first castle scene in Ran. [Ben_Cheshire]

On the other hand, the style also contributes a strangely dreamy, otherworldly feel to the film. This matches perfectly the rather exotic nature of Arenas himself, a man who seems to be torn between accepting his homosexuality and fighting the demons that come along with being a societal outcast. When Arenas finally makes it to the `land of freedom’ as part of the Mariel boat lift of 1980, fate deals him another cruel blow in the form of AIDS. Yet, Arenas’ words live on, a testament both to the cruelty and brutality of life under a dictatorship and to the strength of spirit reflected in any artist who tries to overcome it. [Buddy-51]

As a student of Latin American History and Literature I was pleased with the way the film handled the historical context of Arenas’ time. The political context of Before Night Falls shouldn’t come as any surprise. The artistic, social and political invisibility of gays in Cuba under the Cuban Revolution represented a dark stain on the revolutionary record. In 1965 Fidel Castro told Lee Lockwood (in Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel) that `we would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant Communist must be’ In the mid-1960’s, the infamous UMAP work camps (Unidades Militares de Auyuda a la Producción) sought to rehabilitate what they perceived as alleged antisocial elements. This is an event that is accurately depicted in Schnabel’s film. The purges and denunciations of homosexuals continued into the 1980’s. Today in Cuba discrimination against gays still represents a major problem. The revolution dealt with gender and racial discrimination but not with discrimination against gays. This is all documented with stunning use of archival footage and reference accounts from Arenas’ autobiography. [Preston-10]

Most of the objections to this film have to do with the faithfulness with which Schnabel treats the memoir of Arenas (also titled ‘Before Night Falls’), which, despite its beauty, is undoubtedly biased in its presentation of history. Furthermore, Schnabel seems to downplay Arenas’ contempt for Fidel Castro and the post-revolutionary totalitarianism of his regime, under which countless poets, writers, artists, and practitioners of alternative lifestyles deemed ‘counter-revolutionary’ by the regime were jailed, tortured, murdered, and, in some cases, expelled from Cuba. Schnabel presents Arenas as far more of a victim than an active voice of dissent, which is, in a certain sense, unfaithful to his legacy. It feels as if Schnabel may have had some reservation about being overcritical of Castro and, by default, of Communism, both of which are sympathized with by many artists and leftists worldwide (including the family of the film’s star, Javier Bardem, a Spaniard whose parents–influential figures in Spanish cinema–are longtime outspoken Communists/Socialists).
Both actor and director have publicly avowed that the film means to critique totalitarianism in general more so than Castro or Communist Cuba in particular, which seems like a bit of a cop-out….

The film should not be overly criticized for its historical errors and omissions, because it is primarily a showcase for Schnabel’s artistry as a director and Bardem’s astonishingly charismatic performance as Arenas. The film is also graced by fine performances by Martinez as Lazaro, who rebuffs Arenas’ sexual advances but later becomes his dearest and most trusted friend; Johnny Depp in dual roles as a jail house transvestite who helps Arenas smuggle his manuscripts out to the world and as a sadistic prison guard; Sean Penn as a farmer who encounters the young Arenas on the road to Havana; and Michael Wincott as Herbet Z. Ochoa, a poet and essayist forced to publicly renounce his art by a Communist tribunal. [eht5y]

This could have been great, as it is technically a good achievement, but it is a dishonest piece of propaganda. It is a cowardice to use LGBT struggle and suffering as a tool for capitalist propaganda. Cuban regime did criminalised homossexuals (what has changed only more recently) and it is fair and necessary to say that in cinema. However, it is unbelievable that a Hollywood film uses it to establish a fallacious relation between homophobia and socialism and to delegitimaze Cuban polity as a whole, whereas in some states in USA criminalisation of homossexuality was considered as unconsitutional only in XXI century! There is a right-wing propaganda bias, instead of a fair homage to important writer Reinaldo Arenas or of a serious help to the fight against homophobia. It is made clear in some moments: 1) The bureaucrat say something that is obviously a not credible dialog in real life but a shameless attempt to show Cuba as a ‘scarecrow’: “People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. We create beauty and beauty is the enemy. Artists are escapists, artists are counter-revolutionary.” 2) Later, the main character, very well played by top actor Javier Bardem, says: “The difference between the Communist system and the capitalist system is that when they give you a kick in the ass, in the Communist system you have to applaud, in the capitalist system, you can scream.” 3) Guantánamo Bay USA detention camp is mentioned as if it were a place of freedom, where Arenas could go! It is really harsh to see an imperialist distortion like this and just not care. [guisreis]

You can rack up another name on the list of people who got screwed at the Oscars by the hopelessly mediocre, bizarrely beloved “Gladiator” in 2000. Javier Bardem’s performance in this film was easily and without doubt the best of the year. He holds the audience’s attention with such grace and he makes it look so easy – it’s the kind of performance that should be burned into the minds of everyone who loves film. [tideprince]