Julian Schnabel's feverish portrait of Revolutionary Cuba through the eyes of one of its most vocal expatriates, Before Night Falls is everything the director's first artist biopic (1996's Basquiat) wasn't. Where that film sacrificed character and nuance for elaborate shots and showy performances, Night winds its naturalistic imagery tightly to a heartfelt core: the wide-eyed, expressive lead performance of Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas. Never resorting to martyred-genius posturing, Bardem gives Arenas a brash, scruffy physicality, suggesting that the writer was affected as much by the hedonism of his youth as he was by the injustices of his adult life under the Castro regime. Characters appear and disappear from the story with little warning (Schnabel's decision to cast Johnny Depp in two cameo roles proves distracting), and their motivations can be elusive at times. Instead of detracting from the experience, however, these plot hiccups reinforce the notion that Arenas' life was a collection of juxtapositions both absurd and rational, drab and passionate. When Arenas succumbs to AIDS in the flat, colorless sequence that ends the film, it's neither an indictment of American culture nor a weepy, disease-movie crescendo of emotion. Rather, viewers are left with the feeling that Schnabel has encompassed the full scope of an extraordinary existence, and done justice to a person who would've preferred not to be sentimentalized by death.
by Michael Hastings review