- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2001

Painter Julian Schnabel is expanding his life's canvas with a supplementary career as a movie director outside the Hollywood orbit.

He specializes in episodic biographical chronicles about ill-fated contemporary artists. His debut feature dealt with the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who had emerged from the graffiti pack in New York City and was in vogue during the 1980s before dying of a heroin overdose at age 28. "Basquiat," released five years ago, was enhanced by Jeffrey Wright's intriguing, intuitive performance.

His second feature, "Before Night Falls," is based on a memoir by the late Cuban poet and author Reinaldo Arenas. Born into a peasant family in Oriente Province in 1943, Mr. Arenas became a promising literary adornment of the Castro regime in the early 1960s. But the situation changed, turning him into a habitually harassed and persecuted homosexual writer.

Mr. Arenas spent several years in and out of custody, continued to write and occasionally had his work published in Europe. This precarious status led to his plans for escape and exile. He joined the mass exodus from Mariel Harbor in 1980 and found his way to New York, where he died a decade later of AIDS. "Before Night Falls" was published posthumously in 1993.

The movie follows a more or less chronological path from Mr. Arenas' birth to his death. Spaniard Javier Bardem plays Mr. Arenas soon after the advent of Fidel Castro. From the outset, one gets the feeling that events are being skimmed over that the filmmaker needs to anchor more effectively.

The script is something of a linguistic hodgepodge. The Cuban episodes were simulated on locations in Mexico. As a rule, the principal actors speak in English, although sometimes with the nonprincipals conversing in Spanish around them.

Ramshackle story construction and inconsistencies on the soundtrack don't seem to trouble Mr. Schnabel. The narration is entrusted to Mr. Bardem in both English and Spanish. The Spanish predominates when passages of writing are being recited or when "official" documentation of one form or another is inserted. As a result, quite a bit of subtitling accumulates in a movie that nevertheless relies on English for most of its dramatic encounters.

Although Mr. Schnabel has been drawn to provocative figures — and may perform a service by attracting posthumous attention to the work of Mr. Basquiat and Mr. Arenas — he lacks the cinematic experience and assurance needed to sustain dramatic interest in a feature-length film.

"Before Night Falls" drifts into tangential ruts just as frequently as "Basquiat," which was a half-hour shorter. Both movies begin to feel so interminable that you welcome the fade-outs as keenly as schoolchildren welcome the school bell.

Not even the scenic advantage of exotic locales in "Before Night Falls" can get the continuity promptly readjusted and progressing in an effective way. Lulls and snags seem to feast on Mr. Schnabel like ravenous insects.

If Mr. Schnabel were so attuned to the moment that every fleeting image or impression was stirring, this lack of strategic concentration and foresight would not be such a drawback. Unfortunately, he depends on conventional narrative devices without being certain of how to formulate them to his advantage. In a way, Mr. Schnabel seems to be learning at the expense of his subjects.

For the record: "Before Night Falls" won best picture and actor awards at the Venice Film Festival in the fall. The prize for Mr. Bardem probably owes more to the suffering endured by Mr. Arenas than the simulations on the screen.

Deliberate interjections of comic relief don't survive Johnny Depp's freakish cameo roles in the film. When Mr. Arenas is imprisoned, Mr. Depp turns up as both the resident flirty inmate, Bon Bon, who likes to strut around in drag, and a sinister commandant, Lt. Victor, who likes to stroke himself and point automatics at the mouths of helpless prisoners.{*}1/2TITLE: "Before Night Falls"RATING: R (Frequent profanity and occasional graphic violence; depictions of rural, urban and prison squalor; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity, involving homosexual relationships and brief simulations of intercourse; occasional nudity; allusions to drug use and AIDSCREDITS: Directed by Julian Schnabel. Screenplay by Cunningham O'Keefe, Lazaro Gomez Carriles and Mr. Schnabel, based on books by Reinaldo Arenas. Cinematography by Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas. Production design by Salvador Parra.RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes

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