The Johnny Depp Archive

Before Night Falls (2000)

Starring: Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Olivier Martinez, Michael Wincott

Directed by: Julian Schnabel

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls

Watching Before Night Falls in conjunction with The Motorcycle Diaries is an interesting experience. Whilst the tale of Che Guevara's journey round South America is instilled with an uplifting sense of youthful hope and revolutionary spirit, Julian Schnabel's portrayal of the life of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas paints a very different picture of post revolutionary Cuba. The young country boy may run away from home to join the rebels, but come the revolution, he finds the reality of life under Castro's oppressive military regime falls very far short of his ideals.

In communist Cuba, artists are counter-revolutionaries and 'beauty is the enemy'. And, whilst the swinging '60s may have ushered in a sexual revolution as epoch making as the political one, homosexuals like Reinaldo and his amigos are seen as dangerous, dissolute and dirty. Under a regime where a man can be arrested for wearing tight trousers and sent to a special concentration camp for gays, it isn't long before the dissident Reinaldo finds himself on the party blacklist, his novels banned as anti-Cuban, his lifestyle under unwanted scrutiny. Arrested on a trumped up assault charge, he's thrown into prison, where, after initially winning over the trust of his fellow inmates by penning their wives extravagant letters, he spends much of his time penned up in the foul cupboard sized cell that is solitary confinement.

Johnny Depp as Bon Bon the transvestite in Before Night Falls

But Reinaldo is not a man whose spirit is easily broken. Enlisting the help of the marvellously flamboyant transvestite Bon Bon (yes, it's Johnny with glittery eye make-up and an Ed Wood style blonde wig), he manages to smuggle his latest novel out of the prison - and, yes, the only way is up.

Finally released, Reinaldo holes up with a Bohemian crew of fellow artists and gays, before eventually escaping Cuba when Castro decided to rid his country of everyone he deemed to be contra to his regime - so that's gays, artists and the mentally ill. Nice man, Castro.

Javier Bardem and Olivier Martinez in Before Night Falls

Reinaldo's exodus to New York is a wonderfully uplifting moment, but his new found freedom isn't destined to last long. Falling prey to AIDS, he counts out his final days in the company of his loyal friend Lazaro (Olivier Martinez), before, courageous to the end, he eventually chooses assisted suicide over a long and lingering, painful death.

A moving portrait of an extraordinary man, Before Night Falls offers an insightful glimpse into life in post-revolutionary Cuba. Shot in a matter of fact, documentary style interspersed with genuine footage of Castro and the revolutionaries, it's a beautifully crafted piece of work, although it does suffer from an occasionally mind-numbingly slow pace.

Filmed partly in English and partly in Spanish, the strong accents of the central characters and the rather poor quality of the DVD mean that at times it is rather hard to pick up and understand what's going on. Whilst there is a voiceover from Reinaldo, a little less poetry and a little more explanation wouldn't go amiss either, for those of us (ie me) who aren't that familiar with South American history. The theme of water and the sea as a metaphor for freedom and escape provides a useful means of binding together the disparate scenes, but could just as easily represent the ebb and flow of the meandering storyline.

Johnny as oily sadist Lieutenant Victor in Before Night Falls

From a Depp point of view it's a bit of a treat, even if he is only accorded about five minutes of screen time. Taking on not one but two cameo roles, his macho glamour as sassy Bon Bon is perfectly contrasted with his oily sadism as prison warden Lieutenant Victor, Schnabel repeating the stroke of genius casting that saw him offer David Bowie the role of Andy Warhol in his biopic of the artist Basquiat. And just as Basquiat saw growly voiced villain of choice Michael Wincott take on the role of a camp art dealer, so Before Night Falls sees him play against type again as Reinaldo's artistic mentor Zorilla, forced to recant his homosexuality in order to escape punishment.

But despite the stellar cameos, it's Javier Bardem who really shines. With his enormously likeable, sensitive face and 200 watt smile, he's great to watch, and, like Johnny in The Brave or Finding Neverland, he never overplays his hand but keeps his performance low key, understated and natural.

Like The Brave, this is another film that, were it not for the Johnny connection, I'd probably never have bothered to check out. Not entirely my cup of tea, but a brave and interesting film nevertheless, and well worth seeing.

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