The second movie by art world big boy Julian Schnabel, Before Night Falls, is a biopic as formlessly dreamy as life itself and as fragmented as the cracked plates pasted on Schnabel’s most famous paintings. This journey through the mind of the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas advances in bursts of ravishing imagery (the very dirt of Arenas’ dirt poor childhood is a glowing loam sprouting paradisal greenery) and flashes of inner vision (imaginings and remembrances rise up like hallucinations). No grandiose saint, Schnabel’s Arenas is merely life size — and all the more vivid for it.
As played by Oscar nominee Javier Bardem, Arenas is tough and shy, gleeful and haunted; the most heroic thing about him is a buoyant charisma. But because he was gay and an artist, he was doubly damned as a counter revolutionary in Castro’s Cuba; it’s another measure of the movie’s refreshing scale that his bravery never overshadows his humanity. The telling detail about the man’s work pops up in one of Schnabel’s lush beach scenes: Asked why he writes, Arenas draws a breath and replies with cool firmness, ”Revenge.”