Before Julian Schnabel made The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, David Edelstein's favorite movie of 2007 (and mine, not counting Andy Samberg's Hot Rod), he made another really remarkable movie about the life of Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls. Sanford Schwartz excellent review essay on Schnabel the filmmaker brought the movie to mind.
It, too, presents a person making his way through a distinct social milieu, in this case Castro's Cuba during the 1960s and 1970s, when individual liberties were first celebrated and soon eradicated. Based on Arenas's autobiography of the same title, the movie at its core is an urgent and affectionate portrait of a man who rose from a background of dirt-poor farmers in the hinterland to become an internationally recognized writer and who was brutally punished for his views by Castro's regime and eventually died in New York, a decade after he was able to leave Cuba, of AIDS.
Schnabel is as intimate and down-to-earth about Arenas's life as a homosexual, and about the texture of Hispanic Caribbean culture, as he is about the hospital world Jean-Dominique Bauby inhabits. But Before Night Falls is a richer and deeper movie than The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It encompasses grittier and more tumultuous experiences and revolves around a person (played by Javier Bardem without, it seems, a false moment) who grows as we watch from a cautious kid to a lovely young man and then finally to a self-assured and hardly cautious lover and writer whose refusal to conform leads to imprisonment and torture.
And for a glimpse of the post-Castro future, check out Graeme Wood's "Bay of Capitalist Pigs," featuring a wonderful illustration by Chris Philpot. I only wish you could read the longer version of the piece.
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