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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 Philadelphia 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 Falls 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.
Arenas's 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 edginess.
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
Michael 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).