Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem) is a boy from the Cuban countryside with a gift for writing and a passion for life. He leaves his mother and ventures into Havana just after the revolution has swept Castro to power. He throws himself into his writing and strikes some early success; but his homosexuality soon brings him to the attention of the authorities. Although his friend Lazaro (Olivier Martinez) is more discreet, Reinaldo decides to defy the regime after his second novel is banned and has to be smuggled out of the country. But the powers of the totalitarian state are soon brought to bear on the dissident writer.
Arenas was born in poverty in rural Cuba. As a teenager in the town of Holgun where his family moves he becomes involved in the communist revolution to overthrow the dictator Batista. He becomes a favoured son of Castro's revolution and is given a library job in Havana. But Arenas is involved in two dangerous areas of life under Castro's regime. He's a writer, and artists fall under suspicion of subversive activities and he's homosexual. Despite the fact that there's a thriving gay subculture in Cuba, homosexuality is banned. When Arenas' second novel is smuggled out of the country and published in Paris, he falls foul of the authorities and is arrested.
Javier Bardem gives a terrific performance as the sensual, dynamic Arenas who knows his only hope is escape to the United States. The director Julian Schnabel is a visual artist and there are some beautiful scenes in the film but it suffers from a degree of incoherency as a whole. There's a jagged nature to the narrative that hinders true involvement. I happened to be reading Before Night Falls at the time I saw the film and I was aware that the compelling nature of the book was somehow missing from the screen version. But Bardem's powerhouse performance helps you overlook some of the less successful elements in the film, including curiously self-conscious appearances by Johnny Depp and Sean Penn.
Comments from David Stratton: The story of Reinaldo Arenas is a fascinating one, and Javier Bardem is superb in the central role. It's a pity that Julian Schnabel's rather flat direction doesn't do the material justice, and that gimmicky guest appearances by 'stars' like Johnny Depp and Sean Penn trivialise what should have been a powerful story of a brave and principled artist. Despite some strong elements, the prosaic handling of the theme diminishes the film.