Us writers, and the wild lives we live.
Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem) had a hell of a life that never ceased to be filled with energy, excitement, and altogether, tragedy. It started when he was born fatherless in 1943, and ended with him dying of AIDS in his NYC apartment in 1990. Everything else that happened in between, such as the love affairs, the constant novels being written, and the plenty of arrests in his life, are all apart of his unique story that, once again, was all a tragedy.
It’s hard for a movie to make us feel any type of sympathy for a character, especially when we know what we see is a biopic and it’s supposed to span a long amount of time. Sometimes the directors/writers have to get down and dirty and give us something that’s unique about this person, or the least bit sympathetic for that matter, in order for us to even give a flying fuck about the subject, or the movie itself. It’s very hard to pull off, and pull off well, but sometimes you don’t even need that aspect of your script to make the subject, or the movie work. Sometimes, all you need is a great actor playing the subject to take things over.
And that’s exactly what we have here with Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas.
Honestly, if it weren’t for Bardem’s amazing performance here as Arenas, I don’t think I would have cared for this person, or this movie at all. We all know that Bardem can act his ass off by now, but back in the early days of post-Y2K: People had no freakin’ clue who this guy was and what all of the fuss was all about with him. He had a lot of buzz going on over in his native-land where he was constantly getting nominated and winning awards, but he never quite broke out into the states. That is, until this movie came around and as they say, “The rest is history”.
Bardem is given the simple task here of having to look as if he’s feeling pain and on the verge of absolute-depression, every second, of every scene. For some, it may repetitive, but for me, I noticed something really remarkable here. It isn’t that he’s just using the same look and expression on his face the whole time, it’s more that he’s adapting to the story, the same way the real Arenas would have. There’s always a sad, dark grin on his face the whole movie, even when he’s happy and having a good time, but there’s something more underneath it all that you’re able to latch onto right away, not just because you’re able to tell that is a peaceful soul that shouldn’t be hurt because he’s gay, but because Bardem gives him that soul.
As time goes on for Arenas and the story begins to go through its many dramatic shifts, the performance only begins to pick up more and more heart and emotion, and that’s when Bardem really lights the screen on fire with every ounce of gasoline and brimstone he’s got. The guy’s a class-act of an actor because he’s able to take any type of role somebody has to throw at him, and find a way to make it his own, while also giving something resembling a heart and soul. A soul that we may have to search hard to actually spot, but one that you’ll be able to chalk-up to his ability as an actor and always being able to make his presence more than enough. The dude’s been great for awhile and it’s great to see where it all started.
God, I wonder what we’d do without this guy.
However, I did have a reasoning for talking about Bardem so early on and it wasn’t because he was the main attraction of the whole flick, it’s because he’s probably the best thing going for it since the rest of the flick is a bit of a mess in terms of editing and cohesion. For instance, we jump-forward in time on more than a few occasions where it isn’t that we know what Arenas has been up to in the years prior that we probably missed, but more that we are sort of just plopped-down and left to make up the conclusions ourselves. In some films, this can work, but with a biopic that’s asking us to pay attention to this human-being at the center of the story, it just feels distracting. It’s almost as if we’re paying too much close attention to putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and not the subject himself.
One second, he’s in prison, and then the next second, he’s out and has already written ten books. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even know when he was writing a book, or just writing poetry for the hell of it. The movie never makes that clear enough and it seems because it’s more focused and interested on Arenas’ sexual escapades and the constant trysts he had with other dudes. It’s not wrong to be interested, but it takes away from what was already a brutally honest about depression and grief, especially in this one man’s life. Bardem makes him unique, but he does it so effortlessly.
This movie, on the other hand, doesn’t and even worse, fails at doing so.
Like I said before, without Bardem, who knows what the hell would have happened with this flick. He holds it altogether like Gorilla Glue and never lets loose of it, even when the fragmented story-structure tries to pull his weight down. And that’s not to discredit the rest of the cast either, because everybody else does fine – it’s just that the movie isn’t all that concerned with them, and only uses them as window-dressing. Like, you know, for show.
Olivier Martinez probably gives his best performance as Arenas’ most beloved lover, Lazaro Gomez Carriles, and shows that he has a soft side to his act that we may not see in the muddled-crap that he does nowadays; Sean Penn shows up in what is basically an unrecognizable performance that didn’t even seem like him when he was on the screen, but had me do a check-up and I realized it totally was him; Michael Wincott was a fresh face to see on the screen as the main artist who stands-up to the government, and roots for his writing buddies; and last, but sure as hell not least is Johnny Depp, playing dual roles, both of which are surprisingly good. The first one is a transvestite who Arenas takes a liking to in the prison and has one of the more bizarre scenes of the whole flick, and the second one is him playing a Cuban officer that’s a bit strange as well, but a tad bit more vicious than what we’re used to seeing from Depp. There’s plenty more names where those came from, but they all are fine for what they have to do, but it’s Bardem who really keeps the show on the road, even when the direction from Julian Schnabel gets in the way.
Consensus: If it weren’t for Javier Bardem’s amazing performance as Reinaldo Arenas, who knows what the hell would have happened to Before Night Falls, but with him in the lead role, the movie is surprisingly engrossing, heartfelt, and all the more tragic because of the life the real-life figure lived and even died from.
7.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Grandview Pictures