The story is a painful one, as Arenas (Javier Bardem) struggles to find a place in society where he can be accepted for his sexuality and appreciated as an artist, a goal which he never achieved in Cuba. The film focuses on Arenas' personal life, but also provides an interesting glimpse into life in Cuba, from the period immediately preceding the revolution that put Castro into power, up to the 1980s. We see various parts of Cuban society, from the grinding poverty of Arenas' childhood as a peasant, to the life of the university as a young man, to the gay scene in the city as an adult.
Before Night Falls doesn't take a specific political stance; rather, it suggests that the cruelty and oppression that Arenas and his friends suffer from is separate from the political and economic system; instead, it's the result of all-too-ordinary human cruelty, greed, lust for power, and intolerance, which no system is entirely free from.
Javier Bardem turns in an excellent performance as Arenas, keeping the viewer engaged and sympathetic to him throughout the film. Bardem conveys both Arenas' serious side and his flashes of high-spirited humor, as well as his quiet but resolute dedication to the truth of his writing. Bardem was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for this performance. Unfortunately, the secondary characters are not as distinctive. These characters, Arenas' various lovers and friends, are difficult to tell apart from each other, especially since the director seems reluctant to provide clues in the narrative to help out the viewer who has a less than perfect memory for faces. Incidentally, Johnny Depp's part is essentially a cameo, despite being given a fairly prominent listing in the cast.
One element of the film that I found grating was director Julian Schnabel's decision to have the actors speak with a heavy Cuban accent in the English soundtrack. While the film is paying homage to a talented Cuban artist, at the same time it is reinforcing the illiterate stereotype that "in other countries people talk in English but with a funny accent." The English-language dialogue is a "translation" for the viewer, in place of subtitles; it should be presented as "neutral" (as the speakers would have sounded to each other in their native language) not with a fake Cuban accent. On top of that, the heavy accents make the dialogue occasionally difficult to understand.
The structure of the film is mainly chronological, but with some interesting flashbacks and other nonlinear scenes. For instance, when Arenas is dreaming or describing something, we'll sometimes get a scene depicting his flight of fancy, presented as if it were real. There are also a few clips from historical footage, such as the exodus from Cuba to the U.S. in 1980. In an interesting film connection, these are the same events (and some of the same historical footage) that are used in the beginning of Scarface, though obviously the protagonists are polar opposites! Overall, this variation in the structure makes the film distinctive. The pace slows down in the last thirty or forty minutes of the film, though; the earlier parts are stronger.
Before Night Falls is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 image. The transfer quality is disappointing; it's very grainy, with a lot of noise throughout the film. The contrast is not bad, but some detail is lost in darker scenes. Color is fairly subdued and a little washed-out, but this may to some degree be an artistic choice fitting the theme of the movie.
The soundtrack is available in English Dolby 5.1, English Dolby 2.0, or Spanish Dolby 5.1. The English track is the original; the Spanish is dubbed. The sound quality is fairly good, with use of surround with environmental effects to create a realistic spatial sense.
Before Night Falls has several special features, all of which are presented in widescreen anamorphic format. A seven-minute excerpt from the French documentary "Improper Conduct," about the treatment of homosexuals in Castro's regime, features an interview with the real Reinaldo Arenas speaking about his experiences. An eight-minute home video, shot and narrated by the director's daughter, offers a glimpse behind the scenes, but doesn't really provide much of substance. The last of the featurettes is a 14-minute piece about the director's own artwork; this featurette is not only amateurish, but also apparently completely unrelated to the making of the film. The remaining special features are a commentary track, trailer, and filmographies.
The menus are easy to navigate and are animated with interestingly-done washed-out clips from the movie.
Optional subtitles are available in English, Spanish, and French.
Before Night Falls was a worthwhile viewing experience, though not necessarily one that I'll feel the need to revisit. I appreciated getting an insight into life in Cuba from an objective point of view; the film clearly shows what Arenas suffered there, but without using it as a propaganda piece for the wonders of capitalism and democracy. (As the film shows, life wasn't all roses for Arenas outside of Cuba, either.) It's worth seeing, but I'd suggest first as a rental than as a purchase.