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Alert the Oscars: This film a contender

Art comes to screen in 'Before Night Falls'

graphic

In this story:

Scorned, imperiled

Brave man, bold movie



(CNN) -- Julian Schnabel is, of course, a famous, larger-than-life painter who only recently entered the world of commercial filmmaking. His first movie was 1996's "Basquiat," a minorly interesting study of the hard-living (and dying) painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Now Schnabel brings us his sophomore effort, "Before Night Falls," and there's nothing sophomoric about it. It's closer to poetic.

Schnabel's disjointed narrative follows the life of Cuban author and exile Reinaldo Arenas. It's a sensuous portrait, not only of a man, but of Cuban culture itself. Javier Bardem, who plays Arenas, is a powerful actor who radiates the same combination of irresponsibility and boyish exuberance that's found in Robert Downey Jr.'s best work.

Bardem and Schnabel -- and Schnabel's co-writers, Cunningham O'Keefe and Lazaro Gomez Carriles -- convey Arenas' inner life through the careful juxtaposition of his childhood memories, his homosexual awakening and his terrifying term as a political prisoner. The final act deals with Arenas' flight to the United States, a liberating move that hardly served as a wholesale cleansing of his demons. All of these movements are supported by readings from Arenas' thoughtful, eloquent work.

Scorned, imperiled

Schnabel seldom relies on elaborate camera set-ups or self-conscious editing techniques, which is surprising, when you consider his most prominent gifts lie in a purely visual form of communication. Instead, the director's ability to find drama in color and texture creates an intense environment full of lush beauty. Rich Cuban landscapes, and the pounding waves of the calling ocean, are made all the more provocative by the bare-bulb hell that Arenas endures in jail.

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There's a damp, fragrant ripeness to the cinematography (by Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas). The moments of spiritual comfort are highly evocative, but you can still sense flowers trying to push their way through the cracks in the story's most hellish passages.

The script often dispenses with convention, but doesn't get so blatantly wiggy that it loses the audience. Again, Schnabel is more concerned with his subject than he is with promoting the man behind the camera -- a lesson that directors as self-consciously fading as Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone should take note of. The childhood sequences are informed by a sadness that seems a mixture of Arenas' forbidden homosexuality and his family's crippling poverty. His impulse to write poetry arises in a world that has no room for it, no real need. The rest of the film follows his attempts to find a place where his passion can flourish.

He has to fight for his words, and he almost dies for them.

At age 20, Arenas' first book, "Singing from the Well," was published, and would be the only one of his works to receive a printing in Cuba. By the late 1960s, the Castro government was coming down hard on artists and homosexuals, which made Arenas a double target. His second novel, "Hallucinations," was smuggled into France, where it was published to great acclaim. From there on out, authorities endlessly harassed him and, finally, railroaded Arenas into prison after the author was falsely accused of sexual molestation.

Brave man, bold movie

One of the film's more moving sequences is when Arenas composes articulate letters home for the other prisoners -- men who can barely read, let alone express their deepest emotions to their loved ones.

Bardem infuses Arenas with a gallows sense of humor; his pain and frustration is often conveyed with grinning disbelief. Time does, however, run out for the artist. The New York scenes are partially based on the recollections of co-screenwriter Carriles, who was a close friend of Arenas'. The sadness of these sequences compounds the beauty of Arenas' poetry.

It took guts for Schnabel to bring this politically charged movie to the screen, and three cheers to Fine Line Features for getting it into theaters. This type of unflinching-yet-lyrical picture is more often the province of European directors, or filmmakers who live in parts of the world where artists are jailed for daring to voice their ideas.

What a shame that the United States, the land of the free and home of the brave, avoids cinematic dissent because it doesn't make as much money as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

Enjoy "Before Night Falls" as a great movie, and as a celebration of one man's spiritual and artistic fortitude. Oscar nominations are surely in the offing.

"Before Night Falls" will be a tough trip for some people. There's full nudity, bad language, violence, and non-camouflaged gay sex. Arenas' writing was about tearing away concealment, as all great writing should be. Rated R. A bit long at 133 minutes.



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