Swapping the wanton excesses of the 1980s New York art world for the puritanical confines of the Castro regime, Julian Schnabel continues to tread the myth-rich, landmine-ridden terrain of the martyred-artist biopic. It’s beside the point to compare the febrile Rabelaisian phantasmagoria of Reinaldo Arenas, the late gay Cuban poet and novelist who is the subject of Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, with the snazzy neo-expressionism of Jean-Michel Basquiat (Arenas, for that matter, experienced neither meteoric ascent nor backlash flameout), but the filmmaker’s basic attraction to these two all-too-brief lives warrants scrutiny. Both movies cleave to an unabashedly romanticized notion of art as a tool of self-preservation; both bitterly lament the tragedy of a singular talent worn down by an inhospitable environment—first seduced then cruelly betrayed.
As with Basquiat, there’s a certain dreamy opacity to Before Night Falls. Schnabel is an empathic, often admiring biographer, but he’s uninclined to pause for analysis, as if any lasting residue of insight would irredeemably mire the reverie. By way of compensation, though, the winking insider’s perspective of the earlier film has relaxed into the unguarded stance of a newly enraptured observer. Named for Arenas’s posthumously published memoir (though drawing equally from his scabrous pentagonía of loosely autobiographical novels), Before Night Falls glides, perhaps a little too serenely, through the writer’s life, its anecdotal obviousness leavened by some memorable grace notes. After an impoverished, absent-father rural childhood (given a lush magic-realist gloss), Reinaldo runs away to join the revolution and discovers sexual rather than political fulfillment. (He’s played from young adulthood on by the Spanish actor Javier Bardem.) Schnabel dampens Arenas’s fabled promiscuity, a misstep given the writer’s tireless emphasis on sex-as-emancipation. Still, helped by cinematographers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas’s warmly saturated colors and Carter Burwell’s voluptuous score, he has a blast recreating the Caribbean Babylon of ’50s Havana (in Mexico), a heady, eroticized idyll of azure sky and sea (and cute boys in Speedos).
The new regime soon brought with it further disillusionment, persistent persecution, and eventual incarceration. This horrific chapter (during which Schnabel incongruously retains his buoyant touch) ends with Arenas’s flight from Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Bypassing Miami entirely, Schnabel transports his subject, in one breathtaking cut, from the Straits of Florida to the wintry canyons of Manhattan; what follows, essentially a postscript, is a direct, moving account of Arenas’s battle with AIDS, which led to his suicide in 1990.
Schnabel’s refusal to psychoanalyze his subject can be taken as a wary nod to the pitfalls of biopic convention, even if this respectful approach precludes any discussion of Arenas’s complex sexuality. A more immediate problem is the filmmaker’s failure to convey a substantial sense of Arenas as a writer, save for a couple of key sequences (a montage of newsreel footage of the revolution, a taxicab contemplation that cross-cuts between New York and Havana) in which Bardem recites Arenas’s poetry in voice-over (in Spanish; much of the film requires the actors to speak in accented English). The director’s weakness for flashy cameos is balanced by his good sense to enlist only professional scene stealers: Sean Penn as a smirking gold-toothed cart driver, and Johnny Depp, who appears as transvestite bombshell Bon Bon, then, disorientingly, a few minutes later as a macho, crotch-grabbing lieutenant. Before Night Falls is really a one-man show, though, anchored by a performance of impressive magnitude and nuance. The film’s ephemeral, semi-evasive lyricism ultimately works as a modest frame for Bardem’s tender, deft portrait, which is in turn suitably expansive and rooted in the most concrete details—Arenas’s pride and anger, his unsentimental wit and defiant vitality.
Set in fascist-era Sicily, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna begins as a nostalgic coming-of-age sex comedy tastefully lecherous enough to indicate that its intended demographic is several decades past puberty. When 13-year-old Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) first sets eyes on delectably curvaceous Malèna (Monica Belucci), the camera zeroes in on a ceremonious erection bursting through his shorts. More cringesome than cute, the groin-driven hijinks soon yield to an ostensibly weightier concern: the venomous envy roused in the small-minded townsfolk by Malèna’s transcendent va-va-va-voom-ness. Like Chocolat, Miramax’s other Christmas feel-good (about yourself) offering, this is a double-barreled attack on piety that fights fire with a giant blowtorch.
Speaking of which, the Mafia reportedly burned down sets because of the production’s unsanctioned use of extras, though they could just as well have been reacting to the uniform depiction of locals as bellowing goons. Overassisted as ever by crescendo-happy Ennio Morricone, Tornatore botches his almost mute heroine’s martyrdom with a brutally protracted humiliation sequence. It’s a despicably lazy signal that spectators should adjust the nature of their objectifying gaze—from lust to pity.
For a quality horny-Italian-teen frolic, however, you need look no further than Film Forum, which has shrewdly counterprogrammed Gabriele Muccino’s spry, affectionate But Forever in My Mind. The backdrop is a high-school student occupation involving a passionate if hopelessly vague fight against “privatization and standardization,” but the real tumult—not least for wide-eyed Silvio (Silvio Muccino, the director’s brother)—is hormonal (an excuse for a sleepover!). The director collaborated on the script with his brother and another real-life high-schooler, Adele Tulli, and the result is a credible, sardonic snapshot that, for all its infectious energy, captures the very real frustrations of inchoate adolescent rebellion (“At least my sister had the Cold War,” one student moans), compounded in many cases by generational conflict with ex-counterculturalist parents. Unmistakably related to Show Me Love and New Waterford Girl, But Forever bears the hallmark of a serious-minded teen comedy—it gently mocks but never condescends.
Korean director Lee Myung-Se’s genre-despoiling policier Nowhere to Hide opens with a smear of boldly abstracted slapstick violence, segues into a confidently ridiculous assassination sequence scored to the Bee Gees’ “Holiday,” then catapults itself into a mockingly inconsequential nonnarrative in which brawls morph abruptly into shadow plays or waltzes or oil paintings. Lee’s trickery is dazzling in flashes but also monotonously strenuous—the derangement factor is high but there’s little evidence of authentic lunacy.