A biopic about the dissident Cuban novelist Reynaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem), who alternately triumphed and suffered through Fidel Castro's revolution because of his homosexuality, Before Night Falls is entertaining if shapeless, with Spanish actor Bardem's convincing, low-key performance agreeably dominating the film.
Of course, there are problems. For one, director Schnabel's notorious arrogance seeps into his film. Though Before Night Falls lacks the smug tone of Schnabel's debut feature Basquiat, in which he tried to rewrite '80s art history by making himself (as played by Gary Oldman) into a friend and hero of the very painters who hated his guts, it still has too much self-conscious camerawork and reeks of Schnabel's self-serving artist-as-martyr rhetoric.
Another thumbs down to Schnabel's decision to have his actors speak Spanish occasionally and Spanish-accented English mostly. If you're aiming for gritty realism, why not let the largely Latin cast just speak Spanish? You're selling a movie to an art-house crowd. They're used to reading subtitles. It would have done Bardem a service, too: his accent is so thick that I could only make out about half of his English dialogue. Finally, there's an unnecessary cameo by Sean Penn as a dumb Cuban farmer, and a well-acted but obtuse dual role by Johnny Depp. Why a dual role? Who knows?
I'll confess: the film isn't that bad. In fact, it's quite watchable. But if you miss it, you haven't missed much. See it only for the richness of Arenas' post-revolution Cuba (Mexico substitutes adequately as a filming location) and Bardem's likeable performance.