HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD EXPOSED IN BEFORE NIGHT FALLS
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