They say that sex is all in your head, somewhere near the cerebral cortex. If you believe that, you might think life is but a dream. For the late Reinaldo Arenas—the Cuban exile poet and novelist whose life is the subject of Julian Schnabel’s new film, Before Night Falls (opening December 22)—sex was the muse that allowed him to spirit his body out of an oppressive reality, and into a dream of freedom. “Reinaldo wrote that he had sex with 5000 guys,” Schnabel says. “I have no idea if that’s true. Even if he only had sex with 500 guys, the rest of it went on in his head. Ultimately Reinaldo’s body is his body of work. He turned himself into literature; that’s what saved him.”
True to Arenas’s transformative self, Schnabel’s film allows Cuba’s blatantly gay rebel to achieve a new, celluloid form of immortality. Although Before Night Falls is named after his acclaimed 1993 autobiography, the movie actually draws more from Arenas’s pentagonía—five novels that fictionalize various stages of his life from his childhood to his last days as a starving artist with AIDS in New York. Schnabel, first attracted to Arenas through a videotaped interview that is reprised in the film, had originally written a script with Cunningham O’Keefe that he showed to Lázaro Gómez Carriles, Reinaldo’s longtime friend and executor of his estate.
“I didn’t like the script because it didn’t look like Reinaldo at all, and Julian agreed,” says Gómez Carriles. “I knew Reinaldo since I was 14—a lot of things about his life are not in Before Night Falls, so I helped rewrite those. Also, for every event in the autobiography, I could find a novel where he wrote about it more freely.” Gómez Carriles, who met Arenas on a Havana beach and ultimately punched him for making an unwanted pass at him, credits Reinaldo for showing him “a door to my imagination. He said things like, ‘What is reality? What people really think happened, or what you really think happened?’ ”
Arenas could entertain as many versions of reality as he could sex partners—in some of his novels, he could inhabit as many as three different characters. In “Mona,” a short story that Gómez Carriles is adapting for a potential future Schnabel project, Mona Lisa is actually Leonardo da Vinci, taking advantage of her female body to have sex with hundreds of sailors. “Reinaldo said that the pleasure he was having with all these men is the fulfillment of the pleasure his mother wished she had,” says Schnabel.
The task of portraying Arenas fell to the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, last seen as an utterly convincing wheelchair-basketball star in Almodóvar’s Live Flesh. Originally considered for the role of Lázaro, Bardem was stunned when Schnabel courted him hard for the lead role. After some hesitation, Bardem agreed to visit old friends of Arenas’s in Cuba to research the part. Then, magically, Arenas possessed him. “I came back to New York, and I met Lázaro, who looked me in the eye, and I felt naked,” says Bardem. “I felt in that moment that Reinaldo chose me through Lázaro.”
Bardem learned to type from his brother, an author, and found himself on location in Mexico typing letters to Arenas late at night after shooting was over. “I wrote him about how difficult it was to play whatever, how easy it was to play whatever else, explaining to him my limits as an actor,” muses Bardem. “It was difficult to find the right way to play Reinaldo. He was the ultimate queen, but also he was a person who couldn’t express himself openly.”
Bardem, who is heterosexual, had played two gay characters before in Spain’s wide-open film scene. He got a special kick out of working with Johnny Depp, who acted out Arenas’s literary body-doubling by playing both Bon Bon, a heroic transvestite, and jailer Lieutenant Victor, who sexually coerces Arenas to sign a declaration that his writing is worthless. “Depp was great—he helped me with my English,” says Bardem. “And when I saw him dressed like a woman, I said, ‘Fuck, man, who’s that girl? What an ass!’ ” Culled from the pages of Arenas’s novel The Color of Summer, the Depp sequences represent both Arenas’s dis-corporated sexuality—he claimed not to have had sex in prison because he couldn’t enjoy it while captive—and his dark sense of humor about the way the Cuban revolution censored him.
For Bardem, Arenas’s anti-Castro message didn’t sit well at first—his uncle, Juan Antonio Bardem, was a high-ranking Communist Party member in Spain and his mother was a party activist. “I went to Havana not only looking for Reinaldo; I was looking for myself. I discovered a lot of intellectuals, a lot of good writers, living in such places you couldn’t imagine,” says Bardem. “I found people who are ill and don’t have medicine, but I also found educated, witty, intelligent people. In the end I decided to do the movie because it’s about tolerance; it’s not just against Cuba.” Bardem points out that the same week he was winning a best actor award at the Venice Film Festival, the pope was condemning homosexuality from the Vatican.
Arenas could not be contained by the intolerance of the Cuban revolution because he had already created his own reality through his writing. If Before Night Falls abstains from prolonged sequences of actual sex, it’s not so much a cleanup strategy as a concession to Arenas’s dream world. Even though Arenas has been called the Walt Whitman of Cuba, and has an artistic kinship with Genet, Wilde, and García Lorca, perhaps his most essential influence is the 17th-century Spanish playwright Calderón de la Barca. His play La Vida Es Sueño (Life Is a Dream) is often staged in the Spanish-speaking world; in fact, Bardem has played the lead, Segismundo, in productions of it.
Before Night Falls is Schnabel’s dream of liberating Arenas—who published only one book in his native country—from obscurity; Bardem’s dream of exploring the enigma of Cuba through Arenas’s feverish outbursts; Gómez Carriles’s dream of becoming a writer himself. But as Gómez Carriles, who willfully portrays himself as Arenas’s dull-witted Pygmalion project, admits, their dreams are all constructs of Arenas’s reality. “Me and Reinaldo were not lovers, although everybody thinks so,” he reveals. “Reinaldo thought that a gay man would never be happy because he could never sleep with a real man. When I asked him why he wrote in his autobiography that we slept together when it was not true, he said: ‘You never slept with me, so you were never homosexual. I slept with you because I wrote it, and what is written, people really believe. So now, I slept with a real man.’ Everyone believed what he wrote, teased me about denying it, and then I’d look up and see Reinaldo, smiling at me, saying, ‘See, it’s true.’ ”
Plus: Jaime Manrique remembers fellow writer Reinaldo Arenas.