January 19, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Julian Schnabel’s lyrical and wounding biographical epic may be the first dramatic feature to take us deep inside the lush, crumbling fortress of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. As the gay novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, who became a prisoner of the Castro regime, Javier Bardem, wearing a melancholy half-smile as ambiguous as the Mona Lisa’s, carries himself with a mournful, catlike tentativeness. The film zigzags before us in a manner as heady and unpredictable as it must have felt to the man who lived it. A

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