Each year, the Toronto International Film Festival has that big fat international planted right in the middle of its title, yet of the dozens of films that play there from Iran, France, India, Brazil, and many other countries, the sad but merciless truth is that only a fraction of them will enjoy so much as a brief theatrical run in the United States; of those, a tinier sliver still will achieve any real visibility or impact. This year at Toronto, however, I saw one film, steeped in the mist and memories of another country, that I suspect is going to have quite an impact. The fact that the movie is in English, and that it was directed by the American painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel (Basquiat), in no way compromises the supple and shattering truth of its vision.
Before Night Falls is a full-scale portrait, at once epic, intimate, and transporting, of life within the lush fortress of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Schnabel, who has become a far more compelling director than he ever was a painter, based the film on the memoirs of the late gay Havana poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. He has structured Before Night Falls with a glancing episodic grace, laying out the unruly canvas of Arenas’ life — his friendships and erotic entanglements, his quiet, unwitting war with a government whose ideology of repression is rooted in an ambiguous psychosexual dance with Latin-Catholic machismo. A year after Elián González and Buena Vista Social Club, Schnabel takes us deeper inside Cuba — its dreams and its perils, its grand yet crumbling infrastructure, its tyranny and tenderness and divided soul — than any previous film has. And in the role of Arenas, Javier Bardem, with his now playful, now haunted presence, seems to etch the spiritual contours of a lifetime before your eyes.
Until Before Night Falls, I’d never actually heard of Arenas. By contrast, I was avid to see Pollock, Ed Harris’ biopic of Jack- son Pollock, the visionary dynamo of drip-painting. The genius-at-work-in-his-studio scenes are everything you want: Because of the improvisatory nature of Pollock’s techniques, we believe, in a way that we almost never do in famous-artist films, that we’re seeing the actual creation of legendary works. But Harris, terrific as he is at playing Pollock in an aesthetic trance or an alcoholic rage, never figures out how the guy got that way. The movie is fascinating around the edges with a big hole at its center.
As a filmmaker, David Mamet is like a wine that grows tastier each year. His delectably witty State and Main is one of those irresistible movies about moviemaking —it’s Day for Night for the infotainment age. William H. Macy, all quick-draw duplicity, is the Hollywood director who shows up, along with a rat pack of crew members and a pair of infantile stars (Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker), to shoot a movie in the contempo-Capra town of Waterford, Vt. The terrific one-liners just keep coming, and so do Mamet’s acrid insights into the art of lying, 21st-century-Hollywood style.