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The essence of a good documentary is it's ability to penetrate the subject, the ability to look into the soul, and take a glimpse into the life as the subject may have dreamed it. Can the form of a particular film change the way a subject is viewed, and shape the way we read the film? Does that reading change the way we understand the issues and characters in the film? The director of Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel, uses all five formal elements of form; literary design, visual design, cinematography, editing, and sound design to create a unique artistic representation of the life and journey of the Cuban homosexual writer Reinaldo Arenas. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) was a great writer who was steeped in the Cuban revolution, and wrote over twenty books including, ten novels, and a collection of short stories and poems. He was unswervingly committed to his writing and risked his life to be his true self. Throughout his life he fought for freedom in Cuba, yet was persecuted continually both for his writing and homosexuality. “Reinaldo wasn’t an intellectual” explains Schnabel, “he was a person who was writing because he really needed to say something. He wrote
from the depths of his self, using the hate, the anger and the love in order to express himself”. The script does not analyze or try to explain Arenas, but is a diary of images that dips into his imagination. It tries to find the source of his writing and poetry through analyzing his closeness with nature and with sex. Using this form of literary design, Schnabel is able to create a “life-is-but-a-dream” form of documentary. It is a portrait of a man whose “search for freedom--artistic, political, sexual--defied poverty, censorship, persecution, exile and death.” The documentary presents a series of beautiful images (like paintings) with fantasy flashbacks and voice-overs from Arenas’ writings including his own memoir Before Night Falls and his poem The Parade Ends. The movie opens to a lush green forest, full of deep bright colors of browns, greens, and blues in the heart of the Oriente Province, Cuba. It is the beginning of life, his life, and the start of a literary revolution. As the young Arenas lies in the dirt there is no dialogue: the only sound is the slight hum of nature and the voice-over reading of a quote from his novel Before Night Falls. “The spendor of my childhood was unique because of its absolute poverty and absolute freedom surrounded by trees, animals, and people who are indifferent towards me.” The scene can be seen as a bleak contrast to the future he is about to face, the contrasting indifferences of nature and the cruelty of social and political structures. Director Schnabel suggests that, “the concept of being free in nature and restricted by society in just a fact.” The scene starts with a moving shot of the forest then cuts to a shot of
young Arenas in a dirt hole. But as the camera moves away from Arenas it tracks the dirt. Arenas’ “dreams and nightmares appear in a surrealist stream of consciousness of strange events related to symbols of artifacts associated with farm life”(Ocasio, 92). The true subconscious and soul of Arenas comes out in this film, and Schnabel uses not only a dazzling cascade of painted images but also sounds and moods. Carter Burwell’s musical score helps to unite the cinematographer’s artistic shots. New York Times critic Stephen Holden explains that Arenas’ childhood was his only time of happiness and puritys and through the film he is on a “desperate unfulfilled search for a lost heaven on earth that he experienced only briefly as a very young man”(Holden). As his childhood fades away, a large disastrous seasonal flood comes to carry away his youth– along with any hope for a free Cuba.
“ The most extraordinary event of my childhood was provided by the heavens, water rushed down gutters, reverberating over the sink roof like gun fire, a massive army marching across the trees, overflowing, cascading, thundering into burrows, water falling on water, drenched and whistling and out of control, and under the spell of violence let loose that would sweep away almost everything in its path…it was the mystery of destruction, the law of life, as I saw it the currents were ruining my life “
The scene is composed of clips, clips of water falling, rolling, and tumbling over the Cuban landscape-- an artistic representation of the transition Arenas faces. His youth is swept away by the flood and he is left in a world that is unstable, unable to handle the challenges that he faces. This visual image of water continues throughout the film as a representation of freedom. Freedom from Castro’s regime, freedom from homophobia, and freedom from constant
persecution. The film not only handles the issues of transition but also the issues of homosexuality in the Cuban revolution at the time of Castro. Arenas was a world-renowned author but persecuted in his own country for his writing. People who make art are dangerous to any dictatorship; they are counterrevolutionaries, because they are able to create beauty. Sex and sexuality was a way of fighting the power of the Cuban regime. Arenas asks “Why this relentless cruelty against us? Why this cruelty against all of us who did not want to be a part of the banal tradition and dull daily existence so characteristic of our island?” Homosexuals in Castro’s Cuba were seen as enemies of the state: those who had a problem in need of fixing. Fidel Castro said that “we would never come to believe that a homosexuals could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant”(Young, 8). In the final scene of the film Arenas is now living in New York City, having been exiled from his home Cuba. He is waiting for his imminent death (he has contracted AIDS) but is still suffering from the sorrows of being exiled. The city is bleak, painted with harsh dark hues. The colors of dark sadness and continued struggle, the faded light of Arenas’ life. As the film begins to fade out, you are taken on a ride through the slums of New York and the voice-over begins to read an excerpt from Arena’s poem The Parade Ends:
“ Walking along streets that collapse from crumbling sewers Past buildings you jump to avoid... in case they fall on you Past grim faces that size you up and sentence you
Past closed shops, cinemas, closed parks, closed cafes, Some of them showing dusty signs (justifications): …"CLOSED FOR RENOVATION" "CLOSED FOR REPAIRS" … The walls recede, the roof vanishes, and you float quite naturally You float uprooted, dragged off, lifted high You are transported, immortalized, saved, honored Thanks to that subtle, continuous rhythm... That music, that incessant tap-tap ”
This film takes you on a journey of the mind and soul of Cuban homosexual writer and poet Renaldo Arenas. Director Schnabel contrasts the two ends of Arenas’ life: his lush, bright, beautiful childhood and his dark and suffering end. The beauty of Before Night Falls lies not only in the acting, but also in the artistic form of the documentary. The form of this film affects the way we take in it’s meaning. Before Night Falls not only documents his life, but also captures the essence of his life and the essence of his art.
Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2000
Benshoff, Harry M. and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Holden, Stephen. Before Night Falls. New York Times Review. New York Times. 2007
Ocasio, Rafael. Cuba’s Political and Sexual Outlaw: Reinaldo Arenas. Gainesville, FL:University Press of Florida, 2003
Young, Allen. Gays Under the Cuban Revolution. San Francisco, CA: Grey Fox Press, 1981
Before Night Falls. Prod. Jon Kilik Dir. Julian Schnabel Pref. Javier Bardem, OliverMartinez, Johnny Depp. DVD. Fine Line Features. 2000
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