Before Night Falls

by Robert J. Hawkins | May 24, 2001
Before Night Falls First, lock up the writers.

In revolutionary times, it is said, first lock up the writers and artists then go after the guns. One dissident with access to media can cause more trouble than 100 men with guns. Just how far those in power will go to silence the pen is vividly illustrated in "Before Night Falls" (New Line, R, VHS/DVD), Julian Schnabel`s powerful story of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was persecuted unmercifully as much for his writing as for his homosexuality.

Arenas grew up from peasant roots during the Castro-lead revolt. He believed in the revolution as much as he believed in his own destiny, to become a writer. He was baffled when his obviously superior entry took second in a state-sponsored writing contest. One of his mentors explained the state`s preference for mediocrity:

"People who make art are dangerous to any dictatorship," the man explains. "They create beauty and beauty is the enemy. Artists are escapists. Artists are counter-revolutionary."

The third leg of Castro`s political and social revolution was the sexual one. Initially inspired by liberation, promiscuous sex soon became the public response to repression. Arenas, the sometimes naive country boy, was awakened to his homosexuality at a dangerous time in the revolution. It wasn`t long before he was ground like a spent cigarette under the repressive foot of Castro`s regime. After his first book, a memoir, was published, his writings were banned. When they began showing up in print in Europe, the censorship police were all over Arenas.

He spent some horrific years in prison. He was reduced to living like an animal on the streets. The state officially denied to the outside world that he even existed. His attempts to flee the island were thwarted until Castro opened the gates to America for the diseased, crippled, corrupt, murderers, thieves, queers and artists. Wracked by AIDS, he died - possibly suicide, possibly at the hand of a friend - in New York in 1990, at age 47.

Three years later, the book from which this movie and its title are drawn was published. Spanish actor Javier Bardem gives an uncannily accurate performance as Arenas. An excerpt from a 1983 interview with the real Arenas on the DVD version illustrates just how close he comes to inhabiting the soul of Arenas. For his performance, Bardem collected a room-full of awards and nominations, including Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.

The DVD also has a behind-the-scenes home movie, shot by writer-director Schnabel`s daughter, Lola. It is rough, but revealing of the sometimes rigorous life on location in Mexico - shades of "Apocalypse Now." This wouldn`t be a Schanbel project if it didn`t include a healthy dose of self-promotion: a tediously long interview in his loft studio amid his massive canvas paintings.

The largely unknown cast has a couple of cameo ringers. Johnny Depp plays Bon Bon, a prison transvestite with the ability to smuggle out a whole manuscript. He also plays an uptight Castro military functionary. Sean Penn does a cameo as one of Arenas`s friends.

If you want to turn "Before Night Falls" into an interesting double feature, pair it with the recently released "Quills," (Fox, R, DVD/VHS) Philip Kauffman`s euphoric and dark portrayal of another shadowy literary martyr in the sexual revolution, the Marquis de Sade.

Separated by centuries and continents, their stories are eerily similar. De Sade was locked up at the behest of Napoleon in a French asylum because of his unabashedly pornographic writings. Like Arenas, de Sade found ways to smuggle out his work and get it published.

"In conditions of adversity, the artist flourishes," pronounces a defiant de Sade (Geoffrey Rush in another Oscar-nominated role).

He might have been speaking for Arenas, as well. When a friend asks Arenas why he writes, his single-word response echoed back through time into de Sade`s prison chamber: "Revenge."


"Forever Mine" (MGM, R, VHS/DVD) - From director Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "American Gigolo") comes a tale of passion, betrayal, politics and intrigue.

Joseph Fiennes is a young cabana boy who has a torrid affair with the wife (Gretchen Mol) of a corrupt politician (Ray Liotta). Years later, the boy has grown into a powerful drug dealer and their paths cross once again.

"Dungeons & Dragons" (New Line, PG-13, VHS/DVD) - The classic fantasy-adventure role-

playing game is brought to cinematic life for a real fan and player, first-time director Courtney Solomon.

Among the cast are Marlon Wayans, Jeremy Irons, Thora Birch, and Justin Whalin. The DVD contains two commentary tracks, two documentaries, 11 deleted scenes and a deconstruction of several special effects.

"Vertical Limit" (Columbia TriStar, PG-13, VHS/DVD) - In this action-thriller, a retired climber must undertake a rescue on the treacherous K-2. The endangered team includes his sister.

The special-effect-laden thriller stars Chris O`Donnell, Bill Paxton, Scott Glenn and Robin Tunney. It is directed by a guy who knows his action shots, Martin Campbell ("Zorro," "GoldenEye").

"Into Thin Air: Death on Everest" (Columbia TriStar, unrated, VHS/DVD) - This one, too, takes place at high altitude - but it is based on a true story.

Peter Horton, Christopher McDonald, Nathaniel Parker and Richard Jenkins star in this made-for-TV movie. The story is adapted from Jon Krakhauer`s best-selling book "Into Thin Air," which recounts the tragic events of the fatal May, 1996, Mount Everest climb.

"Pearl Harbor: Seven Views of Defiance" (Artisan, documentary, VHS/under $10) - Just in time to capitalize on the blockbuster movie "Pearl Harbor," opening in theaters this week. Culling the best historical film footage available, the infamous events of Dec. 7, 1941, are reconstructed in this 50 minute documentary. Seven survivors of that day tell their stories.


Making DVD debuts this week: "Big Trouble in Little China," "Unlawful Entry," "Point Break" and "Chain Reaction." On "Big Trouble," director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell offer a commentary track. Look for previously unseen deleted scenes, and numerous other extras.

Also debuting this week: "Catch-22," "Hell is for Heroes," "In Harm`s Way," "Uncommon Valor" and "The Bridges at Toko-Ri."

New Line Cinema has packaged two of writer-director John Waters` quirky comedies, "Hairspray" and "Pecker," in a single package for the price of one - under $25. The movies come with commentary tracks by Waters and "Pecker" includes a gallery of the fictional photographer`s "works."

From television: The 21-episode first season of the popular Showtime channel sci-fi series "Stargate SG-1" is available this week as a five-disc box set, priced under $90. The series, now in its fourth season, stars Richard Dean Anderson.

Martial Arts fans and Jet Li fans - likely one and the same - can rejoice in Columbia TriStar`s box set of the "Once Upon A Time in China" action trilogy in July. Jet Li is the renowned martial arts expert Wong Fei-hung (that`s Doctor Wong in movies 2 and 3). In each of the films, Wong is confronted with chaos and social unrest: slave traders in the first, anarchists in the second and assassins in the third. His superior martial arts training helps him win the day. The encroachment of Western culture is a recurrent theme.

The first film comes with audio commentary by Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers. All three have a dubbed English option and wide-screen presentation.

Price for the set, under $70.


June 12: Tom Hanks is darn near speechless through much of "Cast Away" - but he was nominated for an Oscar anyway.

June 12: Celebrated French romantic comedy "Venus Beauty Institute."

June 12: Something is fishy about the Brooklyn crooks in "All Saints Day."

July 3: Antonio Banderas is a Vatican priest and Olivia Williams is an Israeli archeologist teaming up to investigate a find that promises to shake the foundation of Christianity in "The Body."

July 17: Three of the funniest guys around - Jason Biggs, Steve Zahn and Jack Black - star in the low-brow "Saving Silverman."

July 24: Joan Allen, Patrick Bergin and Pete Postlethwaite star in the Irish crime drama "When the Sky Falls."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Robert J. Hawkins


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