The Images of Resistance: Defying Confinements and Crossing Boundaries
A Contextual Reading of Julian Schnabel’s Film, “Before Night Falls”
From the moment the opening credits beam with A Film by Julian Schnabel graphically dominating the whole frame, almost as big as the film title; the viewer gets hooked to the film almost instantaneously. Opening credits rarely accomplish this filmic technique, if never at all. But with Schnabel’s creative genius and originality, even an otherwise trivial film element such as the opening credits can assume symbolic representations.
With the simplistic and monotone but sketchy graphic design and visual configuration of the opening credits, the viewer quickly gets into the realm of imagery. Impressively sown into the film, the opening credits effectively provide useful hints of what the theme and the visual style of the film would be about: unconventional, non-traditional and avant-garde but with a wealth of invaluable human insights, befitting of its subject: the acclaimed Cuban gay poet, Reinaldo Arenas, whose celebrated life had amplified the tumultuous socio-political unrest in Cuba under the dictatorial regime of revolutionary-turned-oppressor, Fidel Castro from the 1940’s up to 1980 when Arenas joined the Mariel exodus from Cuba to the land of promise, the America.
After the stunning opening credits, the first images of the film come to life: the lush green leaves of the trees swaying with the whistling of the wind heralding a carefree life of abundance and freedom but defining hardship. And then a woman carrying an infant boy appears, with her back on screen. When the camera shifts, we see the woman running towards us, with a gloomy face, her eyes seemingly tired but her long, firm strides are certain of their destination. We understand from Javier Bardem’s voice-over narration (as Reinaldo’s) that the woman is his mother, and the boy is himself as a young boy.
Then slowly and quite deliberately, the screen takes on a delightful visual foreshadowing technique: a naked young boy plays with an empty bottle seated inside a square-shaped muddy open hollow hole on the ground. When the camera zooms out, we see that the muddy hole on the ground is surrounded with the vastness of dampened but seemingly fertile soil and verdant greenery while on the left corner of the frame stands a modest wooden house. And soon enough, we realize that the naked boy inside the rectangular muddy hole is the young Reinaldo.
This image is probably the singular, most memorable of all images effectively interwoven in the film’s narrative. The “naked young Reinaldo seated on the muddy hole on the ground” symbolizes a life that would be fraught with challenges amidst the utter naked innocence of his search for meaningful identity and sense of being. This single but powerful image foretells of a life that would be burdened with society’s normative confinements; an existence that would be weighed down by boundaries, imagined or otherwise; and a living that would be hampered by inevitable compromises in the name of survival.
And this opening image eloquently captures the very essence of the rich and colorful but tragic life of Arenas who ended his own life at the age of 47 in New York in 1990. But while Arenas’ life ended in tragedy, the film remarkably reveals a story of triumphs, of overcoming insurmountable obstacles by dismantling societal confinements and traversing their boundaries, and defying the odds despite agonizing hardships.
Within the beautifully-woven tapestry of images, Schnabel’s film adaptation of Arenas’ autobiographical book of the same title is able to illuminate Reinaldo Arenas’ illustrious life from his birth in the impoverished rural area of Oriente Province in Cuba on July 16, 1943 to his adolescent years in Havana as a teenage revolutionary in 1961 until he becomes a well-known but controversial writer accused by the Cuban revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro as counter-revolutionary (McDowell). Soon enough, his famed writings catch the ire of the government until he becomes its target, gets framed for molestation and sent to El Morro prison from 1974 to 1976 where he was subjected to dehumanizing brutality of prison brand of punishment. His homosexuality and his flamboyant lifestyle as a gay writer during his early years in Havana have long drawn the attention of the authorities whose dogmatic policy against homosexuality has bred contemptuous and often sadistic maltreatment of the gay communities.
When he is finally released from prison, Arenas immediately takes the opportunity granted by the Castro government to “useless and deviant” elements of the society like homosexuals to leave the country. He boards the San Lazaro to Miami in 1980 and from Miami, Arenas settles in New York, is soon diagnosed with AIDS and committed suicide in 1990 at the age of 47 (McDowell).
Reinaldo’s tragically effervescent life is wonderfully illustrated in the film’s plethora of images from Arenas’ poverty-stricken childhood in the 1940’s: the image of the boy Reinaldo receiving a couple of copper coins from his father before he abandons them signifying his father’s contemptible love and shallow sense of responsibility and accountability; to his tumultuous but revealing coming of age experiences as an adolescent: his grandfather’s axing of the tree that symbolizes his dreams and potential as a writer to which his grandfather vehemently disapproves; and the way he boldly walks in the middle of the road after he leaves home as a young adolescent reflecting his courage and audacity in facing an uncertain future with the firm resolve and certainty of his purpose: TO LIVE HIS LIFE IN HIS OWN TERMS.
Schnabel’s realistic portrayal of Arenas’ life depicted in astonishing interplay of imagery inventively created an exceptionally crafted biographical film, an uncommon feat in this genre. These images of confinements and boundaries aptly employed by Schnabel to foreground Arenas’ firm resistance to stereotypes and normative thoughts became the cornerstones of the film. The efficient employment of images made the film not just unsurprisingly beautiful but amazingly more coherent as well. The images of confinements from the “muddy hollow hole” of his childhood to the prison solitary cell of his lustrous life as a writer underscore the triumph of the human spirit against any forms of suppression and oppression, physical or psychological. Even Arenas’ suicide can be deemed as a form of resistance to AIDS as a death sentence and a permanent solitary confinement.
Schnabel masterful filmmaking undoubtedly made the film an exceptional artistic fare. He just did not take care of the visual imagery of the film but he also evidently exerted meticulous efforts in directing the performances of his actors. To say that the Oscars did a grave injustice to Javier Bardem for overlooking his outstanding and seamless portrayal of the eminent gay poet Reinaldo Arenas would be an understatement, to say the least. Even the dual cameo roles of Johnny Depp as the cross-dresser Bon-Bon and the cruel prison guard in El Morro are noticeably restrained, not usually customized by Depp’s thespian tendency to go overboard. All the supporting actors and actresses provided realistic and poignant performances worthy of honorable mentions, clear manifestations of the director’s excellent over-all command of the making of the film.
Well-crafted biographical films come once in a while, generations after generations, but a poetically-crafted biographical film like “Before Night Falls” is a rare film experience never to be forgotten, generations after generations.
McDowell, Edwin. "Reinaldo Arenas, 47, Writer Who Fled Cuba, Dies." 9 December 1990. The New York Times Obituaries. 13 August 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/09/obituaries/reinaldo-arenas-47-writer-who-fled-cuba-dies.html>.