Julian Schnabel, once a painter and now a film director, has made significant strides as a filmmaker in the four years since Basquiat. For that film, a biopic of painter Jean Michel Basquiat, Schnabel made a valiant effort with an accommodating cast, but never found his groove. Schnabel hasn't lost his penchant for stunt casting (he could), but he has significantly developed his narrative skills and filmmaking style in the confident Before Night Falls. Schnabel's film shows (and tells) of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, who suffered under a repressive, pervasively corrupt, persecutory political regime in his home country, before his escape and exile in New York City.
Arenas is played by Javier Bardem, and, clearly, he's Spain's next big thing. Bardem's movement through this wide-ranging tale, from youthful discovery of talent and homosexuality to the psychological depths of torturous imprisonment and eventual death in exile, is never less than wholly credible. The intense focus on Bardem, who's up to the task, helps focus Schnabel, whose narrative and visual flights of fancy are both more expansive and methodical in this sophomore effort.
While Schnabel first sought to transfer his painterly affect to film while telling the story of a painter in Basquiat, here he relaxes into beautiful visual choices while chasing the elusive nature of poetry across the frame. The intersection of Arenas' words and Schnabel's potent imagery (all feeding on Bardem's skill) creates a film language perfectly suited to this true story.
As for that stunt casting, Sean Penn breezes by in an almost unrecognizable cameo as a Cuban peasant, and Johnny Depp plays two roles in quick succession: a transvestite who aids the imprisoned poet and a sexually conflicted military man. Remarkably, these performances are well integrated enough to serve the film more than they distract from the key leading performance, a problem Basquiat never overcame.
The film's award-winning path, begun with the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival, may lead Bardem (if not the film) to Oscar, but the real reason to see Before Night Falls is that Julian Schnabel integrates the best of film in service of a compelling true story, from the opening to the closing frame.