By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 05, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Before Night Falls: Daniel Daza

Wiry yet delicate, with a Roman soldier face topped by a burly thatch of dark hair, the Spanish actor Javier Bardem has the molten looks of a matinee idol. But in Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel’s lyrical and wounding biographical epic, Bardem plays the gay Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, who became a prisoner of the Castro regime, and, wearing a melancholy half smile as ambiguous as the Mona Lisa’s, he carries himself with a mournful, catlike tentativeness that is rare to see in an actor with so much physical magnetism.

Bardem’s every action appears haunted, tragically downsized, and this gives the movie, which sprawls through Arenas’ life as if it were a crystal of pristinely hallucinated memory, a unique psychological suspense: It invites us to focus not just on what Arenas shows us but on what he’s concealing, and why.

Made in English, by an American, and shot mostly in Mexico, ”Before Night Falls” may nevertheless be the first dramatic feature to take us deep inside the lush, crumbling fortress of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. This is only the second movie by Schnabel, the New York painter turned filmmaker, but in both its teeming, documentary like visual splendor and its storytelling grace, it represents a quantum leap over ”Basquiat” (1996).

That film, for all its gossipy fascination, mimicked the rise and fall melodramatic structure of a thousand biopics, whereas ”Before Night Falls” seems to burst the very shackles of the form. Arenas’ life zigzags before us in a manner as heady and unpredictable as it must have felt to the man who lived it.

A disarmingly gentle soul who exists only for beauty and pleasure, Arenas isn’t a rebel, exactly. He’s a pagan innocent, childlike in his fixation on language and desire. There is no place for him in a paramilitary Marxist fascist state that bows to the gray green ethos of control. In one of many startling scenes, Arenas and his friends are questioned on a beach at night by a group of Castro’s soldiers, led by an officer whose bully boy threats give way to a shockingly direct flirtation that in no way diminishes his menace.

In encounters like this one, ”Before Night Falls” lays bare not just the cruelty of Cuba’s totalitarianism but its spiritual essence — a tropical fusion of communism, Catholic guilt, Latin American sensuality, and a fetishistic machismo that both flows out of homoerotic freedom and is driven to squelch it.

Johnny Depp, in a triumphant double performance, shows up first as a glam transvestite who smuggles one of Arenas’ manuscripts out of prison in… well, an innovative place, then as a military officer who camouflages his lust in the terror he inspires. This is a regime in which ”ideology” hides a fatal dance of repression and sin.

There are stray moments when ”Before Night Falls” rambles (that’s the underside of its narrative bravura), yet Bardem’s final scene may be the most wrenching of the year, as the AIDS stricken Arenas, a man who has fought for the freedom to be, now gives up the freedom to live. Few films have made you feel how piercingly close those freedoms are.