BEFORE NIGHT FALLS ***
STARRING: Javier Bardem
DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
RATING: R for rough language, sex and some violence
THE LOWDOWN: The short difficult life of emigre Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas
Pity the writer. It's the least cinematic job on God's green and glorious earth. All they really do is sit and think. Or type. Or push a pen around. Even painters are more fun to watch on the job than writers. See, for instance, Oscar-nominated Ed Harris in his upcoming "Pollock," a Portrait of the Alcoholic as Abstract Expressionist in which the painter's drip paintings are just about all that separate him from being a very glum chapter in a psychology textbook.
Emigre Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas was a very wild and flamboyant writer. "The Color of Summer," the last Arenas translation in English, is what might happen if Thomas Pynchon and Allen Ginsberg had somehow combined with Chris Rock and written in English. But all that Julian Schnabel can tell us about him is that in Castro's Cuba he was a persecuted homosexual (for Arenas in his politically oppressive homeland, says translator Andrew Hurley, being a writer and a homosexual virtually amounted to the same thing).
It's a colorful, powerful and moving film to be sure. Schnabel, the bad boy painter famous for his broken crockery canvases, is a gifted filmmaker with a predictably fine eye for almost every scene's color and movement. And it is superbly acted. Sean Penn and Johnny Depp have wry cameos and Arenas is brilliantly played with hangdog vulnerability by Javier Bardem, who virtually had to learn English for the role.
He actually has a decent chance to win an Academy Award for this movie even though he's about as dark as dark horses ever get.
The trouble is that as spoken in a voice-over you get Arenas' words at their most sensitive but least witty and flamboyant. This, after all, is a man capable of telling us in some imitations of Pascal in "The Color of Summer" that "a man may pardon another man almost anything except greatness." And that "friends are more dangerous than enemies because they can get closer to you." And "there have never been any guardian angels, just guards."
Nothing even vaguely resembling that bitter, playful cynical wit is allowed to penetrate this portrait of the doubly persecuted artist. We follow his life from childhood in a provincial town of "200,000 people and one garbage truck" to his days as a prize-winning Fidelisto poet in a seething Havana of easy virtue and then to his days as a writer whose flamboyant sexual and literary independence condemn him in an increasingly oppressive Castro regime.
"People that make art are dangerous in any dictatorship" he is told by an older writer who gets him to read Melville, Kafka, Proust and Flaubert. "They create beauty and beauty is the enemy." That there is also a sexual revolution going on gives him the courage, when he's among fellow homosexuals, to sass bullying Army thugs. But eventually he's imprisoned in a camp and reduced to smuggling manuscripts out of Cuba in the commodious rectum of a cross-dressing fellow inmate.
The Cuba he once longed to see is now a Cuba where people save inner tubes in which to try to float the 90 miles to Florida. Or build hot air balloons to float to America in the air. Or betray former lovers every chance they get. ("Friends are more dangerous than enemies" etc.)
"Why do you write?" Arenas is asked. "Revenge" he answers, a truth far too blunt and brutal for the flamboyant rococo kind of emigre writer Arenas was capable of being, later n New York.
It's the second Schnabel film about tragic fringe figures in the Bohemian Manhattan that first gave the painter fame (the first was the excellent "Basquiat"). One of the most interesting things, by far, to befall American film in the last 10 years is the number of artists who became creditable filmmakers and then some - Schnabel, the best of all, but also David Salle, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman.
The tragic trouble with Persecuted Artist tales is that there is so precious little that is new that they can tell us. All we can do with them is wag our heads mournfully at the fate of talent in a cruel world and try not to feel too much satisfaction that we live in a society that operates differently (though hardly without its own prejudices).