The Artist's Way
Adaptations of other materials for screen and on stage too often lead to sins of omission, incongruous additions, and unmet expectations for fans of the source material. Adapted films can bring novels (or plays, or whatever…) to life, but rarely have the capacity to render a subject with as much detail and depth as the source. In the case of Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir Before Night Falls, the possibilities and problems are multiplied, because the source is not only the story of one man’s life, but also a complicated political history.
The book Before Night Falls is Cuban novelist and poet Arenas’ account of his life, first in Castro’s Cuba and then in exile, in the United States. Its power is two-fold: it’s an intoxicating, intensely erotic account of sexual discovery and liberation, and a devastating record of the artist’s persecution under the Castro regime. Arenas endured pursuit, surveillance, and incarceration because he was a gay man and a political dissident (not by his writings per se, but by virtue of having manuscripts smuggled and published abroad). In his memoir, Arenas recalls in exacting detail his childhood full of sexual curiosity, his adolescent rebellions, sexual experiences and creative developments during his 20s, and his torture and imprisonment as an adult. Arenas’ story seems almost too much to be lived by a single man. When he finally left Cuba during the 1980 Mariel Harbor boatlift, Arenas stopped briefly in Miami and then moved to New York City, where he still lived in near-poverty and before long, developed AIDS. He committed suicide in 1990.
A faithful filmic adaptation of Arenas’ memoir could easily take six hours and still not capture the full impact of the book. Painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) consciously diverges from the traditional school of literary adaptation. Impressionistic and elliptical, his film presents a series of beautiful images rather than a strictly coherent sequence of events. Arenas’ childhood is portrayed as fantastic flashes, much like a poet might nostalgically remember it. Young Reinaldo plays naked in the dirt as a crane shot pulls back quickly, to show him as a child whose sense of connection with nature will soon be threatened. Adult Arena’s (portrayed by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, from Jamon Jamon and Live Flesh) sexual explorations are portrayed timidly at first, and his relationships with a circle of friends read as platonic. Schnabel portrays the freedom and pleasure of beach culture, but only peripherally takes notice of the cruising and promiscuity. Arenas estimates in his book that he had 5000 sexual partners by age 25; in the film, he has no more than he could count on his fingers. (True, it would be a very long film with 5000 trysts…)
Time passes with little reference, except occasional intertitles. Arena’s years in prison could be a month or a decade. Schnabel’s film doesn’t convey a particular history of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary Cuba. A valid question, of course, is whether the film could or should provide a tutorial in 20th-century Cuban politics. Regardless of whether such events are clearly chronicled, the film does not emphasize, as the book does, the extreme culture of fear and consistent betrayal among friends. Instead, Schnabel opts for moments that make great images and allows them to stand in for a story. For example, in the most visually stunning sequence, one man’s crazy, failed attempt to flee Cuba in a hot air balloon stands in for the entire nation’s desperation to leave the country.
Stunning images serve Schnabel well in showing the inhumanity of solitary confinement in prison. The camera barley moves while depicting Arenas cramped into a small metal box with a dirt floor and smeared with mud and, presumably, his own feces by the time he is released. Daily prison life, however, appears as a series of almost comic situations. Arenas becomes the resident scribe in the jail, writing letters for the other inmates. Upping the ante - and providing a touch of fantasy in a grim setting—Johnny Depp appears as an impossibly glamorous drag queen named Bon Bon, who helps smuggle Arena’s manuscripts out of prison. (Living out an Ed Wood fantasy, Depp is gorgeous.)
Surprisingly, it is not the prison period(s) of Arenas’ life but the final New York chapter that Schnabel paints with of the harshest hues. The colors have gone out of Arena’s fantasies, and his poverty makes his existence a continued struggle. (Even when he was out of prison, some of Arenas’ foreign publishers held out on paying him royalties.) It is also in New York that Bardem seems to most fully come alive as Arenas: he is charming during a terrace interview for a documentary, whereas, during earlier sequences, the much-lauded Bardem plays Arenas with a little too much reserve. Despite the importance of featuring a native Spanish-speaking actor in the central role, much of the dialogue and voice-over are muddled in his thick accent, suggesting that a subtitled film may have been more appropriate.
The effectiveness of the New York sequence has led me to question whether this is influenced by Schnabel’s own experience with 1980s New York (the setting of Basquiat and his own painterly superstardom) or the more sudden development of narrative form. The question ties in with the more fundamental crisis I experienced in seeing the film: a division between appreciation for its visual beauty (it was shot by Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas), and disappointment that so many of the facts were missing from the screen. Certainly, Before Night Falls is not a “faithful” adaptation on the level of storytelling (too many of Arenas’ life has been eliminated) or factual documenting (the film does not present a discernable history). Schnabel collaborated on the script with Cunningham O’Keefe and Lazaro Gomez Carriles (the guardian of Arenas’ estate, saintishly portrayed in the film by Olivier Martinez). And, as reported in a New York Times interview with Schnabel, the script progressed from very detailed to broader and more impressionistic, including snippets of Arenas’ creative writing. The result is a sumptuous, dreamy film that only touches reality in its ravaging final moments. Schnabel’s choice not to present a more thorough portrait of Arenas’ passions for men and desperate suffering under Castro, however, seems to miss so much of Arenas’ memoir that it does not give the book its due.