Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000)
[originally posted 19Feb2001]
[ed. note 2013: I originally saw the film a week or so after it was released. I had no words; I posted a two- or three-sentence review to Amazon. I wrote this over a year later; by that time, I’d watched it at least fifty times, including three times in a row when IFC played it for six hours back to back the night they premiered it. In that initial Amazon review I called it maybe the best movie ever made; thirteen years and change later, as of this writing, it is still #1 on my thousand best movies list; only a single movie, Hotaru no Haka, has ever even come close to dethroning it.]
Usually, I give a film five stars when it contains no flaws at all, when it’s so unerringly perfect that it’s impossible not to like. This time, I give a film five stars (the twenty-third film ever to get five stars, for those who are counting) despite flaws. Before Night Falls is that good.
Before Night Falls is based on the memoir of the same name by Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas, who ran away from home as an adolescent to join the rebel armies moving against Batista in 1958. Shortly thereafter, Castro came into power, and as Arenas grew up and became a writer, he was soon made to realize that there was no place for him in the world he’d helped to set up.
Javier Bardem, who plays Arenas from the writer’s early twenties until his death in 1990, is a revelation. Best Actor isn’t good enough to recognize and celebrate Bardem’s complex and wrenching performance. He and Schnabel have the same understanding of Arenas’ story, and the same desire in presenting it. While Schnabel contrasts the sere beauty of the Cuban landscape (and the even more sere beauty Arenas tries to evoke from the ugliness of New York City later in life), Bardem constantly reminds us that Arenas’ life wasn’t only about being oppressed, but about the simple joys of quotidian life in Cuba. The contrasts inherent in the film make the inevitable twists of the knife just a bit harder to take each time, and the cumulative effect is devastating.
There are some difficulties with the film. Many of the accents fade in and out of recognizability, to the point where the average American viewer will probably not understand what’s being said in a few places, especially early on in the film. The general bent of what’s being said is never lost, however. The pacing is inconsistent, as well, and the film drags ever so slightly in a couple of places. Both of these problems are forgivable within the greater framework, as Schnabel, first-time scriptwriter Cunningham O’Keefe, and Bardem come together with a spectacular ensemble cast (highlighted by Johnny Depp, once again showing up for less than five minutes in a film, this time in a double role) to create not only the best film of the year by far, but a film that, if there is any justice in the world, is destined to be remembered as one of the finest pieces of cinematic work ever committed to film. Finds a place very high up on the 100 Best list—perhaps at the top. *****