Political Film Society - Newsletter #91 - December 22, 2000

December 22, 2000


Before Night FallsBefore Night Falls gives filmviewers a unique opportunity to get an inside look at Cuba since the revolution of 1959. Director Julian Schnabel (nominated by the Political Film Society in 1996 for directing Basquiat), exposes the contradictions of the Castro regime in a bio-pic about acclaimed gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (played by Javier Bardem). Born illegitimately in Oriente province in 1943, Arenas experiences a childhood of rejection and seeks to express his deep emotions through writing. When his talent is recognized by his mother (played by Schnabel’s wife, Olatz Lopez Garmendia), his grandfather explodes with wrath, since now he cannot count on his only male heir to take over the family farm, so he moves the family to a town of 200,000, doubtless Oriente, where Arenas first becomes excited with the sight of the male body. When the revolution erupts, Arenas hitches a ride with a peasant (played by Sean Penn) to join in the victory, and he ends up in Havana, which is embroiled in the artistic, social, and sexual liberation of the early revolutionary period. His bisexual friend Pepe (played by Andrea Di Stefano) introduces him to the literary inner circle, consisting of writers who are eager to propel Cuban literature to world recognition. His first novel, Singing from the Well, was published in Cuba in 1967, when he was only 23. In the 1970s, as Fidel Castro begins to impose his version of Communism on all independent forms of cultural expression, the order comes down that men’s longer hair must be cut, writers are regarded as enemies, and gays are rounded up for "re-education." Arenas is able to avoid the earliest purge, living underground, but the crackdown on "counterrevolutionaries" precludes any further publishing in Cuba, so his later novels are smuggled out of the country. One day in 1974, two youths steal his clothes at the beach. When he reports the theft to the police, the officer quickly locates the young thieves, who falsely accuse Arenas of molesting them. He is then detained but escapes, lives on the run, is caught again, and is finally released after confessing his "errors" of homosexuality and subversive writing.

During his longest period of incarceration, he is placed into very small cubicles (hotboxes) where an electric light burns day and night, producing exhaustion in due course. While in prison he accumulates a vast supply of cigarettes from inmates in payment for the favor of writing love letters. He then exchanges cigarettes for writing supplies, and his literary outpour continues. One manuscript is smuggled out of prison in the rectum of a fellow prisoner, a transvestite (played by Johnny Depp). In 1980, after President Carter announces that his administration stands ready to admit more Cuban refugees, Castro offers exit permits to criminals, the insane, gays, and other "undesirables," and Arenas is one of some 125,262 Cubans to leave the port of Mariel from April to September (though three times as many applicants were denied permission to leave). The film then deteriorates into something of a docudrama, as Arenas moves to New York to resume his literary career, contracts AIDS, and dies in 1990 alongside the loving care of a macho Cuban exile. According to the film, his partner suffocates him, though suicide is recorded as the official cause of death. During the movie we are treated to some of his memorable poems, which powerfully attest to his extraordinary creativity. His final book, published three years after his death, furnishes the title of the film. Before Night Falls exposes several realities about Cuba. For example, the inability of prisoners to write love letters serves to question whether there is really widespread literacy, contrary to the claims of the regime. Castro, in the name of "revolution," decided to bury some 400 years of Cuban literature, and, based on my own trip to Havana after Arenas left for New York, has allowed some of the most beautiful architecture of the hemisphere to decay (although the film was primarily shot in Mérida, on the Yucatán peninsula). Moreover, the regime persecuted gays while military and police continued to enjoy being serviced by them; the most notable example is a prison guard (also played by Johnny Depp) who strokes himself as if to hint at a reward in order to entice Arenas to recant. Punctuated by some film footage of hypocritical speeches by Castro, Before Night Falls exposes Cuban human rights violations as no film has ever before attempted. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Before Night Falls for two awards -- best film exposé and best film on human rights for the year 2000. MH